To talk about the Argentine penitentiary system is to enter into an incredibly complex universe, but the latest official statistics for January 2019 reveal a grim reality: 103,000 inmates held in 308 prisons.
Overcrowding is the crucial trait and the foremost cause for concern in Argentine prisons. The upward trend has been particularly steep since 2007, far-exceeding the crime rate. The crime rate currently stands at one-third of the incarceration rate.
The growth in the prison population can be attributed to multiple factors: a tightening of criminal law, the repressive narrative of official speeches, social injustices, the influence of the media, etc.
Furthermore, almost half of the 103,000 inmates are being held on remand, without a trial to determine their guilt. Another determining factor is the indiscriminate imprisonment decreed on a daily basis by judges, and a failure to release people who would be eligible for a regime other than the penitentiary system.
Overpopulated prisons lead to overcrowding, outbreaks of violence among prisoners and between prisoners and prison officials, wear and tear on facilities as a result of intensive use, and increasing difficulties in accessing basic and essential rights – food, healthcare, education, etc. It goes without saying that the more inmates there are, the more difficult it becomes to access the system’s scarce resources.
However, there are also significant signs of change on the horizon. First and foremost, openness and transparency. Twenty years ago, prisons were completely closed off from the rest of the world. Nowadays their hallways are frequently inhabited by people from the free world and all kinds of organisations who visit the establishments to offer multiple services: cultural, educational, employment, religious, sports, etc. Both good and bad aspects of prison life waste no time in reaching public opinion.
With regards to employment, slowly, some self-management entrepreneurship is beginning to emerge, where people deprived of their liberty have started to market their products outside of the prison walls.
But it’s tough to access these rights in the context of confinement, and these tentative initiatives do not make up for the harsh reality of life in the Argentine penitentiary system. That said, they’re also hard to access outside of prison.
The role of prison officers also deserves a mention. A job founded on a tragic history of abuse and violence is currently experiencing a generational shift among officers, and the progressive incorporation of women in a historically male-dominated environment.