By Miguel Sarre
DPLF Board Member, Professor at ITAM
The Mexican Congress has assumed its Constitutional authority to legislate on matters related to prisons throughout the country. In the coming weeks they will approve the National Sentence Implementation Law. This Law should guarantee that:
- Courts (sentence implementation judges) have effective authority over prisons. Leaving their directors playing both sides of the fence would be as unacceptable as entrusting criminal justice only to prosecutors. What purpose does it serve to have due process in criminal justice, if we cannot guarantee the rule of law in prison? What’s the point of criminal law reform without transparency regarding prisons?
- Public Prosecutor’s office supervises prisons. As the representative of victims of crime, and of society, this institution should guarantee that sentences and pretrial detention are carried out legally. As in the case of a breakout, special treatment is a form of impunity that results in discrimination and the violation of other prisoners’ rights, while making a mockery of victims.
- Public and private defense attorneys can effectively represent prisoners before administrative and judicial authorities. This means protecting their clients’ rights in relation to prison conditions, life plans and activities, transfers and discipline while in prisons, and procedures regarding sentence reduction.
- Civil society has access to prisons. This is a form of establishing community control over the implementation of judicial decisions; if trials are public, then there should also be public access to prisons and the processes for enforcing criminal law to avoid special treatment and abuses. It’s a myth that transparency will affect security.
- The rights of visitors, defense attorneys, and civil society organizations are recognized. To safeguard the rights of inmates before the prison authorities and sentence implementation judges, the rights of these actors must also be recognized and protected.
Legislative agreement on these matters will enable the provision of sufficient personnel, food, and medical services in prison; the establishment of discipline before violence breaks out; and the elimination of corruption, instead of privatizing prisons that treat inmates like merchandise, while the government risks tax revenues in the coming decades.
Such agreement is also necessary to end the generalized corruption in local prisons, which includes the daily extortion of thousands of inmates to permitting luxury cells for government officials or other wealthy or influential prisoners.
The recent deaths and injuries of dozens of inmates in Monterrey’s Topo Chico prison demonstrates that special treatment and abuses in prison are two sides of the same coin; what occurred was not a natural disaster, but rather a political calamity that began with the absence of a proper law and was consummated by the indolence of the authorities.