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'Prisons in Mexico: What for?'

| By Anthony King, GPS News

The Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies (USMEX) at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) partnered with the Mexico City-based nonprofit México Evalúa to translate a comprehensive report on Mexican prison reform. The report “Prisons in Mexico: What for?” was discussed in detail Wednesday, Nov. 13 at UC San Diego’s Institute of the Americas complex.

Sandra Ley and Octavio Rodríguez FerreiraSandra Ley of México Evalúa highlighted key points of the report, including the cost of using prisons as punishment versus rehabilitation, the overuse of incarceration for pretrial detention, and the current state of overcrowding. Ley was joined by Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, coordinator of the Justice in Mexico Project at University of San Diego.

“The purpose of this policy paper is not to push for impunity, but to have proper use of prisons,” Ley said. “This will work as long as politicians begin to think more seriously about prisons.”

Statistics in the report stack up: over half of Mexico’s prisons are overpopulated, with a total occupancy rate of 128 percent. Cells designed for six or eight individuals frequently house up to 20 or more. Additionally, 20 Mexican states rank above the national average of five inmates per employee, or guard. There are over 18 inmates per guard in the state of Quintana Roo, the country’s worst offender.

“In general, prison overcrowding and overpopulation makes it difficult to operate effective programs to reintegrate convicts into society,” the report states.

Both speakers outlined ways to alleviate the current burden on the prison system, with Rodríguez Ferreira pointing out the need for alternatives to imprisonment, particularly for minor offenses. Ley agreed.

“It really speaks to how absurd the system can be,” she said. “Putting people into prison does not mean justice.”

USMEX Visiting Professor David Shirk wrote the forward for the report, saying widespread use of prisons as punishment is a contemporary issue, an issue that is often overlooked. “Prisons in Mexico: What for?” is a landmark study, he said, that will play an important role in establishing a benchmark for future policy evaluation.

“Careful monitoring and greater external scrutiny are needed to ensure that prison practices in Mexico can be improved,” Shirk said. “In this sense, México Evalúa and the authors of this study have made an extremely important contribution by compiling and analyzing the available data on Mexico’s prisons.”

Following the presentation, USMEX screened the 2008 documentary “Presunto Culpable” (“Presumed Guilty”), which was banned in Mexico in 2011 but went on to become the highest-grossing documentary in the country’s history. In it, filmmakers Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete expose the unsettling reality of a life behind bars in Mexico City and the prison system’s inhumane process.

Read the full, translated México Evalúa report: “Prisons in Mexico: What for?”