The prison system is easily the most problematic institution in Mexico. While other institutions, public or private, simply fail to deliver on their assigned objectives, prisons achieve the structural reversal of their goals: they make society less secure. As incubators of both crime and criminals, the deteriorated situation of jails and prisons in Mexico is an urgent political problem – yet it is one that you probably don’t care much about. In this essay I will further explain the problem; why we don’t care about it; why you really should care about it and finally what direction we should look in.
Prisons in Mexico and in the Americas in general suffer from multiple problems. To start, they are typically chronically overpopulated. Amongst other things, hard-on-crime policies of the past (under the influence of private prison lobbies, depending on the country) have contributed to a rise in prison populations that outpaces the growth in capacity. Furthermore, delays in the justice system mean that Mexico has a large amount of people locked up awaiting sentencing. These overcrowded places have transformed into incubators of crime, both inside and outside the prison walls. A government report from May 2017 estimated that 65% of Mexican prisons were under the control of organized crime. In some cases, such as Monterrey’s own infamous Topo Chico prison, the authorities resort to guarding the walls and essential allow self-governance inside. This means that the prisoners are abandoned to the inside power dynamics and violence, as was graphically demonstrated by the 52 people who died during a single 2016 riot in the aforementioned prison. The grip of organized crime on prisons goes hand in hand (both cause and effect) with widespread corruption in the penal system, and the justice system at large. The combination of corruption, overpopulation and self-governance leads to two main problems. First, that organized crime can use prisons as headquarters and recruitment grounds. Rather than ‘cutting the head of the snake’, jailing kingpins still allows them to take part in cartel activities (if they don’t escape). Furthermore, like a spider in a web organized crime can wait in prisons for both new recruits or their rivals to arrive on their doorstep, with nowhere to run. Second, the human rights situation of inmates in Mexico is extremely concerning, both in terms of material conditions and security. However, public opinion has not always shown sympathy for the second point.
The problem in
politicizing prison reform is that prisoners are the ultimate ‘undeserving’
group. Sociologically speaking, the amount of help or justice society is
willing to allocate to certain groups is amongst other things influenced by
their perceived ‘deservingness’: how much we think they deserve help, either by
need or merit. Prisoners fall at the far wrong end of this spectrum, for the
last administration somewhere below circus animals (a prime concern for former
majority party Verde). To start with, unless unjustifiably convicted, prisoners
are guilty of violating societal norms by definition. And if we are not angry
at them, we are afraid of them. This was seen in the absurd hysteria fueled by
the politics of fear campaign of the PRI resolving around now president AMLO
releasing all criminals. An absolute lie, but in my experience the number one
thing that conservatives remember from the campaign. Beyond not caring out of
anger or fear, a sizeable portion of the population actually enjoys the
unlawful hardships of prisoners as a form of extra punishment (‘jail is not a
vacation’). Lastly, convicts are – apparently – suckers: real criminals don’t
go to jail or get away with ludicrously soft sentences, as various
ex-presidents and governors can attest. They never caught your uncle either,
right? Sufficient to say that for active politicians, helping prisoners (that
is, outside corruption) and prison reform are suboptimal topics to cater to,
further aided by the fact that in Mexico prisoners cannot vote. Yet, announcing
policy for undeserving groups in not impossible. For example in December 2018
the governor of Nuevo Leon announced a plan to improve the jail situation in
his state and take back control in the Topo Chico prison.
A praiseworthy intention, although greater national concern for this topic is
Now, why should you care? First of all, because it is a national security issue. As long as prisons remain a stronghold of cartels, it is hard to impossible to fight organized crime. It allows them to keep control even after being arrested and run operations from jail. By threatening the families on the outside and the inmates on the inside, they can also keep control of their members and their family, making it hard to truly extinguish these organizations. Combined with corruption and occasional jail breaks, one can never truly take cartels out of society. Second, because the failure of the rehabilitation and corrective functions of prison (it’s legal mission) generates further crime. It serves as a recruitment ground for gang and cartel activity, as many inmates (who can be in there for a variety of reasons) are forced to find a place within the criminal hierarchies. Furthermore, given the conditions don’t favor rehabilitation, once out they will have a hard time reintegrating in society. Combined with a strong stigma against hiring ex-convicts, this can generate more crimes committed out of survival motives. Organizing a prison system around the concept of punishment instead of rehabilitation is like peeing one’s pants in the cold: it feels warm for a minute, but overall makes the situation worse. A third reason is to stop the carnage and abuse that many inmates need to go through. This can be done for moral convictions, as would be fitting in a Christian country, or out of respect for human rights. Besides, organizing dreaded carnage might be a bad idea given we or a loved one might justly or unjustly end up in prison ourselves.
So what can be done?
Although not an expert on this question, structural reforms seem in place. One
objective is to break the self-governance in prisons. This involves evident
moves, such as the government taking control back by force and purging corrupt
officials. Higher salaries for the correctional officers seem another logical
action, and lies in line with the current government’s philosophy. A more
daring move would be to re-shuffle the prison population across the country to
break the established criminal networks and power bases (sadly this would be a
burden on the families). For example a desegregation of prison gangs through
transfers was attempted in El Salvador in 2017, although the results are still
to be awaited. A second objective is to reduce overpopulation from both sides
of the equation: on the one side by slightly increasing the number of public
jails, including more separate ‘low level’ facilities for sheltering
non-organized crime related convicts. On the other side by reducing the amount
of people, for example by reducing jail sentences for certain crimes or
offering alternative punishments for light crimes. The final objective is a
better reintegration into society, including expanding guidance through social
work and the establishing of employment programs – I coined one idea for this
in my essay on the nationalization of weed. If only we had a political leader
who is forgiving and daring enough to pick up such an unpopular yet important
topic. Well, maybe we do, time will tell.