In March 2016, I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs magazine, “Jailhouse Blues: Nicaragua’s Take on Prison Reform.” Read an excerpt below.
In 2013, a group of men incarcerated at Nicaragua’s La Modelo prison started a Facebook page. The page, which they maintained via contraband cell phones, began as an effort to publicly document the usually hidden details of their daily lives: bruises from beatings by guards and fellow inmates, emoji-studded and sentimental messages to their wives and girlfriends back home, and the sludgelike food they would cook over oil drums. Since it launched, the page has gained 14,000 followers, who now have some sense of what it is like to live inside one of Central America’s most notorious, overcrowded, dirty, and violent prisons. Local and international media have written about the Facebook page, but the government has not shut it down, likely because it lacks the technology and enforcement capacity to do so.
For the men, one of the worst aspects of the prison is overcrowding, a problem that has been well documented throughout Central American prisons. Most local politicians turn a blind eye to the conditions except when there is a crisis, such as the fire at Comayagua prison in Honduras in 2012, in which more than 300 inmates died. The government’s seeming indifference may due to public support for punitive responses to crime. (A 2014 survey indicated that 55 percent of Latin Americans were in favor of harsh punishments for criminal offenses.) Often, local media portray youth gang members as dangerous, animalistic enemies — soldiers in a broader war against crime that make harsh prisons seem logical and necessary. Some politicians, such as the former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, have considered contracting U.S. companies to build new, larger high-tech prisons — plans whose fates are unclear under the country’s new administration. But when Nicaragua announced in February that it had released more than 8,000 prisoners on parole as a “humanitarian measure” over the last two years, the concept was heralded as a potential new approach to incarceration in Central America.
Although the government did not frame the release as a crime-reduction initiative, there is reason to believe that such measures, contrary to conventional assumptions, could help. Research from the United States shows that more incarceration rarely reduces crime. And prison itself can be criminogenic — meaning that spending more time in prison can increase a person’s likelihood of becoming a repeat offender once released. In other words, allowing incarcerated people to return home ahead of the completion of their sentences is not only a humane action but it could also mitigate harmful effects of imprisonment — and it is less expensive than long sentences. Should Nicaragua’s initial release succeed, it could set a precedent for additional criminal justice reforms in Central America. Read more.