Nicaragua has reportedly released the equivalent of 80 percent of its prison population over the last two years in a controversial measure to ease overcrowding that suffers from a lack of transparency.
On February 22, Nicaraguan government officials announced that 8,149 prisoners had received a conditional release since 2014, 845 of them so far in 2016. As of October 2014, the country's prison population stood at just over 10,500, according to government figures published by the World Prison Brief.
According to a Nicaraguan government spokesperson, the prisoners had been sentenced for minor crimes and were serving sentences of less than five years, and their releases were part of a "humanitarian policy of reconciliation and unity for Nicaraguan families."
The terms of release require the convicts to report periodically to the prison where they were housed, have a family member sign as a guarantor for their release and meet certain conditions such as not entering places where there is gambling or consumption of alcohol, reported El Nuevo Diario.
Human rights groups and government opponents criticized the measure for political meddling in the judicial system and for its lack of transparency, especially over the criteria officials used when deciding who receives parole, reported La Prensa.
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As in much of Central America, Nicaragua's prisons suffer from severe overcrowding, and it is almost certainly this rather than a desire to reconcile families that is behind the mass release of Nicaraguan prisoners.
Nicaragua's prison system only has the capacity to hold around 5,000 inmates, and until 2010 the population remained steady at between 6,000 and 7,000, according to the World Prison Brief statistics. However, since then, the population has shot up to over 10,000, leading to appalling conditions in facilities that are crumbling under the strain.
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Attempting to ease overcrowding by seeking alternatives to custodial sentences may be a viable option under certain circumstances. Flooding prisons with minor criminals can be hugely counter-productive, destroying families, forcing minor offenders to co-exist with hardened criminals, and pushing prison systems to the point of collapse.
However, such a policy must be carefully and transparently implemented, otherwise there is the risk is of a situation developing such as in Venezuela -- where over 13,000 prisoners were released onto the streets with a near complete absence of oversight and control.
In Nicaragua, lack of government transparency makes it difficult to assess whether the release was a carefully considered response to minimize the impact of a genuine crisis, or a badly planned, knee-jerk reaction to that crisis.