Why Aren't We Talking About Mexican Prisons?

Internos del Reclusorio Norte en la Ciudad de México. Foto del usuario de Flickr Eneas de Troya compartida en términos de licencia Creative Commons 2.0.

Prisoners in the Reclusorio Norte prison in Mexico City. Photo from Flickr user Eneas de Troya. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Mexico's New Penal Justice System or Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal (NSJP), an ambitious judicial reform originally passed in 2008, came into effect in June 2016. The most widely reported aspects of the NSJP are the oral proceedings and the adoption of a process similar to the one used in the United States.

However, it will also impact the penitentiary system in ways that are rarely, if ever, spoken of in mainstream media except in extreme cases like that of “El Chapo” Guzmán, the notorious drug trafficker who escaped twice from supposedly maximum security facilities.

According to an online report from the newspaper Zócalo de Saltillo, it is expected that with the implementation of the NSJP, a large number of people will be set free and Mexican prisons could very soon experience changes in the number of prisoners.

Unos 50,000 presos federales y locales pronto podrían estar en las calles. Se trata de reos que no han sido sentenciados hasta ahora y que, de acuerdo con la miscelánea para el nuevo sistema penal aprobada ayer por el Senado, tendrán derecho a solicitar su libertad a partir del próximo sábado.

Some 50,000 federal and local prisoners could soon be on the streets. These are inmates who have not been sentenced until now and, according to the various articles in the new penal system approved yesterday by the Senate, they will have the right to request release beginning next Saturday.

Beyond those currently imprisoned, the number of new people being incarcerated should, in theory, decline thanks to the NSJP because only a handful of crimes will result in prison sentences, among them: intentional homicide, genocide, rape, espionage, terrorism and crimes against health (drug trafficking). Lesser crimes, such as loss of property, theft and fraud, will not necessarily mean the guilty party will have to go to jail.

Before the reform, people accused of the above crimes needed to remain incarcerated (on remand) during the trial, leading to prison saturation. This is one of the issues tackled in the work done by the organization México Evalúa and shared with followers by the Twitter user René Sánchez Puls:

Horribly managed penitentiary system prisons in México look at the percentages by state doc 80 pages @mexevaluahttps://t.co/wUJ9AUbasY

Edgar López. Foto del usuario Flickr Edgar Efrén López Ramos, Reclusorio Sur 02. Usada bajo licencia CC 2.0.

Edgar López. Photo by Flickr user Edgar Efrén López Ramos, Reclusorio Sur 02. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Inequality in prisons is a reflection of the country

Mexican prisons are going through a crisis that reflects the daily inequality in the country: While some have it all, others don't even have a space to sleep.

In the beginning of 2016, a prison center called Topo Chico was the scene of a massacre, which received short-lived media attention. Luis González de Alba, a writer who spent time in prison decades ago, referred to this attention in a piece for the magazine Nexos:

Con el escándalo del enfrentamiento de dos pandillas de narcos en el penal de Topo Chico, cerca de Monterrey, y los 49 muertos que dejó el saldo sangriento, se produjo una revisión de las instalaciones y nos informan, con inexplicable alarma y sorpresa, que había irregularidades nunca imaginadas: prisioneros VIP con celdas acondicionadas a su gusto y muebles de recámara, televisores y hasta saunas.

The scandal, caused by the confrontation between two drug gangs in the Topo Chico prison near Monterrey, which ended in a bloody toll of 49 deaths, led to a revision of the facilities. We are informed, with inexplicable alarm and surprise, that there were irregularities hardly imaginable: VIP prisoners with air-conditioned cells to suit their tastes, bedroom furniture, televisions and even saunas.

González de Alba continued by giving comments based on his personal experience in jails:

El grupo dominante vendía el derecho a tener una litera de cemento y no un lugar en el suelo para dormir, alimentos especiales, ya no digamos droga y servicios sexuales. Todo costaba al preso y la autoridad no sólo era tolerante, sino parte de la extorsión a los prisioneros. Me asombra el asombro: así ha sido siempre en las cárceles del país. La novedad es que también ocurra en las de alta seguridad.

The dominant group sold the right to sleep on a cement bunk instead of a place on the floor, special food and it goes without saying, drugs and sexual services. Everything was for a price for the inmate and the authorities were not only tolerant, but they took part in extorting inmates. I'm surprised by the surprise: It has always been like this in the country's prisons. The novelty is that it also happens in maximum security prisons.

The dominance of inmate groups to which Alba refers above is spoken about very little in the media. A report from the business magazine Forbes, quoting an official source, is an example of one of the few times it is covered:

De acuerdo con la Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CNDH), el deficiente control en las funciones de autoridad por parte de los servidores públicos dentro de los centros, da lugar a situaciones de autogobierno.

In accordance with the National Committee for Human Rights (CNDH), deficient control in authoritative functions on the part of public servants inside the prisons gives rise to situations of self-government.

Self-government, but also overcrowding and unsanitary conditions brought on by overpopulation in Mexican penitentiary centers, are topics which I myself explored in a piece for the newspaper Mexican Times:

Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and corruption have brought ruin to the penitentiary system: @tadeo_rc https://t.co/agOuu2I6ufpic.twitter.com/B2zXdHBIqW

The penitentiary system crisis is not limited in the region to Mexico. The newspaper El País has reported in the past about overpopulation plaguing prisons in Latin America.

Lupita Pitalua is another person who is worried about the penitentiary crisis:

While I'm listening to a documentary about the topic, the problem needs to be addressed now! Penitentiary system in Mexico

With the NSJP's implementation, the Mexican penitentiary system may finally come out of the shadows, where it has been forgotten by authorities and the media. Beyond the latest reform, there's still much to be resolved, such as the issue of reintegrating offenders into society and not just keeping them in captivity only to later release them without any treatment.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.