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South American prison deaths tied to overcrowding, official says

February 9, 2012 |  5:02 pm

Violence at prisons in South America, where at least eight inmates were killed in recent weeks, remains tied to alarmingly shoddy conditions and rampant overcrowding, a United Nations official said Thursday.

Inmates in Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile reportedly died during the last two weeks as a result of prison violence.

The “alarming pattern of prison violence in the region” points to problems with adequate space and unsanitary conditions, said Amerigo Incalcaterra, the U.N. human rights representative for South America. Prisons in the region are overcrowded by anywhere from 30% to 70%.

In Uruguay, three inmates died from inhaling smoke when someone intentionally set a fire, possibly because the prisoners robbed their cellmates, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported:

“The boys are tired of, for example, my mother bringing me things and them [the other prisoners] taking them from me. The problems inside here are for those reasons. They couldn’t take any more and set the fire when [the victims] were sleeping inside the cell,” said one inmate interviewed by El Espectador. 

In Argentina, one prisoner was stabbed to death by another prisoner, while another was killed by blows to the head, allegedly by guards. 

Venezuela is trying to tackle the problem with a new prison ministry after more than two dozen people died in prison riots in July. Officials are pledging to speed up trials for inmates charged with minor offenses.

Critics say the crowded prisons are the offspring of the South American war on drugs, which has led to severe punishments for even minor drug offenses.

"The implementation of harsh drug laws has fueled rising incarceration rates and has contributed to severe prison overcrowding," the Washington Office on Latin America and the Transnational Institute wrote in a study two years ago.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles