Commissioners: Tracy Robinson, Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, James L. Cavallaro
On March 25, 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) heard a petition addressing the state of human rights in Nicaragua’s prisons. The Petitioners alleged that individuals deprived of liberty in Nicaragua are subjected to numerous human rights abuses including inadequate access to food and medical treatment, torture, and cruel and degrading punishment.
The bulk of the Petitioners’ presentation was focused on the adverse human rights consequences of overcrowding in Nicaragua’s prisons. The Petitioners indicated that the Nicaraguan prison system held over 12,000 inmates as of September 2013, despite the fact that it was only capable of accommodating 5,496 inmates. To relieve overcrowding, the government has begun holding condemned criminals in police holding cells. However, Nicaraguan law dictates that individuals may only be detained in police holding cells for a period of 48 hours in order to provide the police with sufficient time to conduct criminal investigations. The Petitioners alleged that numerous human rights abuses have taken place in these overcrowded police cells, including the rape of detained women by police officers, the death of numerous detainees due to inadequate food, water and medical attention, and the torture of various inmates.
Additionally, the Petitioners noted that overcrowding has larger implications on the prison system as a whole. They alleged that overcrowding has led to a decrease in inmate safety across the prison system. The Petitioners presented numerous examples of compromised inmate safety, including the rape and beating of a prisoner by multiple inmates, and the unexplained death of an inmate while in his own cell. Furthermore, they alleged that prison officials have failed to publish any findings on these instances of inmate violence and many others like them across the prison system. Thus, the Petitioners have had to rely in part on the testimony of the inmates and their families to uncover instances of violence and abuse.
Thus, the Petitioners asked the IACHR to urge Nicaragua to allow human rights groups access to the country’s detention centers, to stop the long-term detention of inmates in police holding cells, and to better the infrastructure of its prison system. The Petitioners also requested an IACHR in-country visit to Nicaragua.
The representative speaking on behalf of Nicaragua began his response by noting that the main objective of the prison system is inmate rehabilitation. Additionally, the State indicated that the mistreatment of prisoners is illegal under Article 36 of the Nicaraguan Constitution, which protects the individual’s bodily, psychological, and moral integrity. Thus, the state noted that torture and other cruel and degrading punishments are punishable by law.
The State also refuted the Petitioners’ allegations of inadequate inmate nutrition and access to medical treatment, noting that the prison system has its own fully licensed physicians and nurses that provide general and specialized medical treatment to inmates. It also noted that inmates are fed three square meals a day, and that the food’s quality is closely monitored by doctors and other prison officials. Furthermore, the State indicated that it has increased the prison system’s budget and is building new prison facilities to reduce overcrowding.
In closing, Commissioners James L. Cavallaro, Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty, and Tracy Robinson, Rapporteur for Nicaragua, requested more information from the State detailing the government’s position on allowing civil society groups to monitor the prison system. Furthermore, they also requested further government information on what it is doing to investigate instances of inmate death and violence. Commissioner Rose-Marie Belle Antoine endorsed the government’s goal of prisoner rehabilitation, but requested more information from the government on how it is achieving this goal. Additionally, all three Commissioners expressed their interest in visiting Nicaragua to evaluate and assess the state of its prison system. The hearing concluded with Nicaragua agreeing to discuss the possibility of allowing the IACHR to conduct an in-county visit.