Opening Remarks, Third Meeting of Officials Responsible for Penitentiary and Prison Policies of the OAS Member States


Third Meeting of Officials Responsible for Penitentiary and

Prison Policies of the OAS Member States

Washington, D.C., September 17-18, 2012



By Ambassador Adam Blackwell

Secretary for Multidimensional Security







  • On behalf of the Secretary General of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, I am very pleased to inaugurate this Third Meeting of Officials Responsible for Penitentiary and Prison Policies of the OAS Member States. This process, which was established in 2003, should be a pivotal opportunity to share challenges and innovative solutions that we all share. In fact my short presentation will be structured around these two themes; some of the challenges that I have seen I my travels and some innovative solutions that we are trying to promote at the OAS.


  • I am not saying anything new when I say that – Prison systems throughout our region with some exceptions—are facing serious challenges. The results of both the First Meeting of Authorities, which was held here in WashingtonDC in 2003, and the Second Meeting, held in Chile in 2008, have indicated that overcrowding and infrastructure deficiencies and institutional weaknesses are among the principal challenges facing our region’s prisons. Millions of our citizens are deprived of liberty -consequently our Prison occupancy rates are high -178% in Central America, 152% in the Caribbean, 152% in South America. 27 of the Member States have overcrowding problems and from 2000 to 2010 the total prison population in the Americas increased by 30%.
  • Overcrowding is a consequence of several factors, including: lack of adequate infrastructure, “get tough,”, or “zero tolerance” measures, and broad use of preventive detention. In our region, more than 40% of the prison population is on pretrial detention.



  • As Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has stated “the incarceration of millions of people in the region is, in itself, a major security problem.” Overcrowded prisons, coupled with prolonged detentions, directly impacts infrastructure, inmate health and low levels of activity, levels of prison violence, difficult relationships with the families and communities and undue pressure on scare reinsertion reintegration capabilities.
  • These issues are compounded by what I would call the public relations and vocational issues. Prison staff in many countries is, poorly paid, poorly trained, and disrespected by both the prison population and society more broadly. This lack of institutional capability and professional staff  leads many in society to wonder, whether our prison systems are helping to solve the problem of insecurity or are whether they are actually contributing to it.


  • Since our last meeting in 2008, there have been a number of serious security-related incidents in facilities throughout the Hemisphere. In February 2010, inmates in a prison rioted after guards tried to crack down on drug trafficking and 36 prisoners and nine officers were injured.


  • In December 2010, 81 inmates died when rioting prisoners set their overcrowded penitentiary ablaze. This past January, 3 more inmates died . In February a fire killed nearly 360 inmates in the prison of Comayagua, Honduras. Five days later, 30 alleged members of one drug cartel escaped from prison and killed 44 prisoners who apparently belonged to the rival Cartel. Last month a fire at the Agricultural Correctional Facility caused the death of 7 inmates. Unfortunately the list goes on and on.


  • The OAS has been piloting a full diagnostic of the security systems of some of our member states including prisons some of the issues we have identified: weak support for alternatives to incarceration, inadequate programs for rehabilitation and social reintegration, again poorly trained prison officials, corruption, and lack of effective means for protecting vulnerable groups, and a serious lack of information on minors incarcerated , as well as sex disaggregated data and gender sensitive information.


  • In general terms the region also lacks effective classification and registrations systems, and as a result, youth and adults are often incarcerated together, regardless of the seriousness of their respective offenses, and regardless of whether or not they have actually been sentenced for a crime. In this context, it is often private sector actors and civil society organizations, such as churches, that take responsibility for reintegration.



  • It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that our correctional systems are not correcting. Most of the criminals released from prison are re-incarcerated within three years. According to Wilson Quarterly, two-thirds of released prisoners in the United States are re-arrested for at least one new serious offense and more than half are re-incarcerated within three years. In Chile, a studies point out at a 56% rate of recidivism after 4-5 years. In Peru the rate of recidivism is over 30%.
  • According to international standards and conventions once a criminal is convicted, and his/her punishment is the deprivation of liberty, the overarching goal in the majority of cases is to ensure their personal rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into society and the family unit; while protecting both the victims and society. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ “Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas” guides our region’s penitentiary and prison systems in this regard. Bottom line we need a consistent standards based approach to prison management.



So enough of the bad news; I want to talk a little about some possible innovative solutions.

  • Research demonstrates that rehabilitation and reintegration programs have a strong impact in reducing recidivism if they incorporate proven principles and are targeted at specific offenders. Those that receive education, vocational skills training and drug treatments are less prone to recidivism by about 20%.
  • With this in mind the OAS is currently in the process developing a “methodology for monitoring and evaluating reintegration programs aimed at reducing recidivism.” You will be hearing more about this program a bit later this morning.


  • The OAS is also supporting, together with other international organizations, the active implementation of SICA’s Central American Security Strategy, particularly its pillar on rehabilitation, reintegration, and prisons management that seeks to “strengthen, expand, and modernize the prison system in the Central American countries from a regional perspective. To contribute to the establishment of mechanisms, procedures, infrastructure and institutions, aimed at the rehabilitation and social integration of persons deprived of their freedom and to systematize and share successful experiences and innovations.”


  • In 2006 the Organization designed a program to develop and strengthen member state’s institutions, policies, and strategies regarding treatment and rehabilitation for individuals with problems stemming from drug abuse and violence. The Training and Certification Program for Drug and Violence Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation (PROCCER) created a Training and Certification Model that may be implemented throughout the hemisphere in response to the need for trained prevention and treatment service providers working in violence and drug addiction. The PROCCER Model may be adapted to meet country-specific needs and capacity to better ensure the institutionalization and sustainability of the program benefits – a professionalized workforce providing optimized standards of care in drug treatment and prevention services.


  • The goal of the project  is to strengthen governments capacity by providing them and developing with them effective and appropriate assessment instruments, infrastructures, and resources to develop model reentry programs that must begin in prisons, and other correctional institutions. It provides for the development and implementation of reentry plans that address the issues that impact an offender’s opportunity to make a successful transition to the community, including employment and artistic training, job placement, case management,  life skills training, mentoring, individual and family counseling, community support services, family support services, substance abuse treatment and mental health services. This is an excellent example on how to improve rehabilitation programs for those deprived of liberty.


  • In El Salvador, for the vocational and training component, SMS partnered with the OAS’s Trust of the America’s Partnership in Opportunities for Employment through Technology in the Americas (POETA) to provide training in information and communication technologies through Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential (UP) Program, and job readiness training to female juvenile offenders. As we speak a similar program “orchestras juveniles” has started working in a girl’s prison to help teach them music as an alternative to violence.


  • SMS launched the Drug Treatment Court Program for the Americas in December 2010. Almost half of the OAS member states are involved in exploring, implementing, or expanding this model of drug treatment court as an alternative to incarceration. Drug treatment courts vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but most involve suspension of the judicial process provided the offender volunteers to participate in a drug treatment program. The judge supervises the offender’s progress in treatment with the assistance and cooperation of a collaborative multidisciplinary team which includes the prosecutor, defense attorney, social workers (case officers), treatment providers, and probation officers. Evidence supports the hypothesis that DTCs, when carried out properly, will significantly: (1) reduce crime, (2) reduce relapse into drug abuse, (3) reduce the prison population, and (4) help the individual to reintegrate into society. In addition, various studies in a number of these countries show that (5) this initiative is cost-effective.


  • In El Salvador, we have been working on a truce among two rival gangs, many of whose members are imprisoned. This peace process has led to a reduction in the number of homicides. In the period March-September 2011 2,194 homicides took place in El Salvador, after the truce, in March-September 2012, homicides were reduced to 997. The OAS has pledged to monitor the project to reduce gang violence, and has become “guarantor of this historical process.” Similarly we are working on a Commission to reform the security sector in Honduras, which has as one of its components the rebuilding of the prison system.


  • This third meeting is being convened within the framework of the Meetings of Ministers of Justice or Other Ministers or Attorneys General of the Americas (REMJA), and in response to resolution AG/RES.2657 (XLI-0/11): “Meeting of Ministers of Justice or Other Ministers or Attorneys General of the Americas”, which called for the celebration of this meeting in order to foster the exchange of information and experiences and strengthen cooperation among authorities responsible for penitentiary systems in the OAS Member States.


  • Over the next two days, we will be addressing such topics as correctional planning, effective programming/interventions, graduated re-entry schemes, and community supervision, safety and intelligence, and specialized offender populations, rehabilitation and reintegration programs, among others. These are all critical elements for bringing about real and sustained change in our prisons, because as we know, true reform requires a comprehensive, multi-faceted, and multi-dimensional approach. Greater focus needs to be placed on cross-sectoral policies and budgets, civil leadership, training and staff development and programs appropriate for each prison population, elements that together can help strengthen prison management.


  • We also know that these much-needed reforms require not only the political will of each and every member state, but the financial and technical support of the international community. I hope that we can continue to work together through fora such as this to advance our common agenda and bring about the changes that are so desperately needed in our prisons.


  • I wish you all a very successful meeting.




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