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Friday, July 25 2014 @ 06:37 AM EDT

The Other Side of Panama's Prison System

Crime & Punishment By DON WINNER for Panama-Guide.com - Want a nasty job that someone has to do? Be in charge of Panama's prison system. The Dirección General del Sistema Penitenciario (General Office of the Penitentiary System) falls under Panama's Ministry of Government and Justice, and they are responsible for keeping the criminals behind bars and ensuring for their health and well being. Quite frankly the entire system is, for the most part, a tremendous embarrassment for the Republic of Panama. As with anything else it all comes down to funding and resources and the limitations imposed by a large prisoner population, overcrowding, and increasing crime. All of the criminals that are rounded up daily eventually end up in the charge of the prison system. I stopped in to their offices because of the Toni Grossi-Abrams murder case - I want to see the Women's Prison on Tumba Muerto where Debra Ann Ridgley will probably be spending some time to get an idea of the conditions. I know what the La Joyita and El Renacer facilities look like, and wanted to get up to date on some other issues. (more) I spoke to Licda. Orieta Medina, the Secretary General of the General Office of the Penitentiary System. She explained that they are working to make improvements to the system, including;
  • 60-Bed Hospital - One of the news clips frequently played on the Panamanian news is a story about an inmate who was injured in a prison fight or something who is being taken to Santo Tomas for treatment. They are in the process of building a health-care facility on the grounds of La Joyita which will serve both the La Joyita and La Joya facilities and the some 6,000 inmates that live there.

  • 3,000 Chickens: One of the things they are doing is making a farm, basically, on the grounds of the facility. The inmates will tend to chickens, goats, and pigs as well as be able to grow fruits and vegetables.

  • Skills Training: There are several workshops inside of the facilities designed to give the prisoners skills they can use when released in an attempt to break the cycle of poverty and crime. Panama's Instituto Nacional de Formación Profesional y Capacitación para el Desarrollo Humano (INADEH) (National Institute of Professional Formation and Training for Human Development) has developed five training modules specifically for inmates, who are taught to be plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and auto mechanics. There is a printing facility at the Women's Prison that takes contract work from the outside.

  • Applications, Evaluations, Acceptance: All of the inmates want to participate in these training and work programs because for every two days they work, their sentence can be reduced by one day. They are screened and those who are in for primarily "administrative" crimes who are non-violent or dangerous are accepted. The screening process is tough and those who are on their best behavior can get into the programs.

  • Work-Release: There is also a work-release program in which inmates are allowed to leave the prison during the day to go to a job, then are transported back to the facility at night. This is their version of a halfway house, and again it's to get inmates accustomed to working on a regular basis. Of the 11,000 plus inmates in the system there are only a few that are in this program.

  • Early Release for Good Behavior: Panamanian law allows for non-violent offenders to be released after having served two-thirds of their original sentences with no problems. These "pardons" have to be authorized by the President of Panama, and in the past, especially under Mireya Moscoso, the "list" was always released just before Christmas. Using this process to gain some kind of political advantage became the standard practice but in reality there is nothing in the law that says they have to do it at any particular time. Under the Torrijos administration they have been doing the "list" about every four months or so, and the inmates are released on a supervised bail program; they have to report in every so often, stay out of trouble, etc. Foreigners can not be given this time off (for fear of flight) nor can those who have been convicted of murder, rape, international drug smuggling, or armed or aggravated robbery.

  • Everyone Wants To Go To Renacer: One of the problems faced by the system administrators is that every inmate wants to be moved to the El Renacer facility because they have better living conditions, more space, etc. Since January 2007 they have been implementing a re-alignment of the prisons. Now, those with long sentences will be in La Joya. Those who are detained but not yet sentenced will be in La Joyita. The Renacer facility will be for those who are in a "pre-release" status. And the Tinajitas facility will be for those who are on some kind of work-release program.

  • Building New High-Security Pavilions: Thanks to donations from the European Union, they are going to build two new high-security pavilions, one at La Joya and one at La Joyita. The real hard-asses will be put in these facilities which will create some space in the rest of the facilities.

  • A New Facility for Witnesses: The Public Ministry is putting forward a plan to have a new facility built to house those who are witnesses in ongoing cases. Right now they are put in with the rest of the general population and there's a huge fear and intimidation factor.

  • Thanks For the Ambulance: The European Union also donated a used ambulance, which was built by the fine people of Peugeot. Of course, it's the only horse of its breed in the entire country, so every time it breaks down they have to spend a whole bunch of money to special order parts, find someone who can fix it, etc. Maybe next time they can help by sending a Toyota.

  • How's The Food? Another recent improvement has been the awarding of a contract to an outside company to prepare the meals for inmates. The food arrives in sealed containers that are opened by the guards, so there's less opportunities to smuggle in contraband. The inmates are very happy with food, and this system is a huge improvement over what they were getting.

  • Working To Improve Perception: Panama has always had a very poor image of their prison system, and even through they are working to make improvements it's easy for the media to focus on the negative. There's very few headlines in good news, incremental progress, or general improvements that are hard for the untrained eye to perceive.

Taking A Tour: I'm requesting permission to visit La Joya, La Joyita, and the Women's Facility to see them for myself. I know that this article reads like the "rose colored glasses" version, but there is some information in here that I have not heard before and programs that I did not know existed. I'll be looking to verify all of this independently as well as talking to the inmates and seeing the facility for myself. More later.

Copyright 2007 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. As usual feel free to use whatever you want as long as you credit the source. Salud.

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