Populism and imprisonment in the Americas

By Carolina Villadiego Burbano*

 

A harmful trend has been embedded in the region for years. It consists in believing that jail is the only way to combat crime and in stigmatizing certain populations as “criminals.” As a result, politicians increase sentences and crimes, society demands more jail time, the media say that insecurity is high, prison overcrowding grows and xenophobia spreads. All this without showing that jail is effective and efficient.

This region has a prison overdose. According to data from World Prison Brief, the Americas have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Three countries in the region are among the top ten with the largest numbers of people incarcerated (the United States, Brazil and Mexico); three, are in the top ten of the highest rate of people imprisoned per 100,000 inhabitants (United States, El Salvador and Cuba); and five, among the top ten of the most heavily overcrowded (Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela and Bolivia). And this is mainly due to the creation of new crimes, the abuse of pre-trial detention and the use of jail as the sole punishment.

In addition, women’s imprisonment has grown extensively in the region, although the proportion of women deprived of liberty is significantly lower compared to that of men. However, in certain offenses like drug-related ones, female imprisonment is proportionally higher. When you add to this that incarcerated women are usually heads of household and have children, the effects of female incarceration are particularly harmful.

Jail in Cojutepeque, El Salvador, where M-18 prisoners were assigned for over twelve years. The jail closed in 2016 for failing to meet basic sanitary requirements.Source: Pacifista.co

Jail in Cojutepeque, El Salvador, where M-18 prisoners were assigned for over twelve years. The jail closed in 2016 for failing to meet basic sanitary requirements.Source: Pacifista.co

As if this were not enough, society feels that there is a lot of crime and calls for more jail to fight it. According to Latinobarómetro, in 2015, more than 60% of the Latin American population felt that they had no protection against crime and that their country was more insecure every day. However, more than 50% of respondents also said that they had not been victims of any crime in the last year, nor were their relatives.

This scenario of distrust is used by politicians to stigmatize certain people as “criminals.” For example, recently the president of Argentina announced some measures to control the entry of foreigners, the Vice President of Colombia said that the increasing insecurity is due to Venezuelans entering the country, and the president of the United States restricted the entry of people from certain Arab countries. But the truth is that there is no evidence that directly correlates the increase of criminality with the increase of migrants; in fact, some argue that this correlation is not true. In our region, for example, the proportion of foreigners incarcerated is usually less than 6%.

Source: World Prison Brief. Highest to Lowest – Foreign prisoners

Source: World Prison Brief. Highest to Lowest – Foreign prisoners

The main problem is that it is not clear how to break this perverse trend . On the one hand, because the idea that insecurity grows and that jail is the only form of punishment is entrenched. On the other hand, because showing “high” levels of crime increases television ratings and increases the private security business. But also, because the invisibility of prisons generates a great disconnect with citizens, and for example, while people are willing to complain and protest against police abuse, they are less willing to do so over the irrational prison use.

Even so, this trend must end. But how to do it? First, we must insist on making visible what is invisible, that is, making prisons and the problems generated by disproportionate imprisonment visible. Also, it is necessary to demand that judges use alternatives to imprisonment, ask politicians to support their proposals with empirical evidence, and reduce the perverse incentives that police and prosecutors have to increase imprisonment rates. For this to be possible, alternatives to jail must be properly supervised, because if they fail, the demand will always be for more prison. In short, we must seek a break from this trend that has permeated the region.

 

*Carolina Villadiego is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).

Photo credit: Olli Homann