Commissioners: Tracy Robinson, Rodrigo Escobar Gil, Felipe González, Rosa María Ortiz
Instituto de Estudios Legales y Sociales del Uruguay (IELSUR)

On Tuesday, March 27, 2012, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR, Commission) held a thematic hearing on the human rights situation of persons deprived of liberty in Uruguay. In 2011, the Commission’s Office of the Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty visited Uruguay to observe the prison system and issue recommendations for improvement. The petitioner, Instituto de Estudios Legales y Sociales del Uruguay (IELSUR), requested the hearing to discuss implementing the Rapporteur’s recommendations and protecting the rights of persons deprived of liberty in Uruguay.

The petitioner first provided an overview of Uruguayan prison system conditions, explaining that prisons are severely overcrowded, which contributes to serious health, hygiene, and other problems. The petitioner noted that 65% of inmates are awaiting trial, and the accused are not separated from the convicted, which is a violation of Article 5.4 of the American Convention on Human Rights. The petitioner requested information about steps the state has taken to implement the Rapporteur’s recommendations, and argued that the actions taken thus far have not improved conditions. The petitioner also expressed concern about government plans to privatize prisons and certain services in prisons, which could encourage further increases in the prison population. Finally, the petitioner inquired about legislation regarding alternatives to imprisonment. Although Law 17897 provides for sentence reductions under certain conditions, including through work and study programs, the petitioner argued that the law has not been properly enforced and that not all inmates have access to this opportunity.

In response, the state of Uruguay affirmed the current administration’s commitment to improving the conditions of persons deprived of liberty, and provided examples of action taken to reduce overcrowding such as building new facilities and expanding and renovating preexisting structures. The state indicated that it has also sought to improve conditions within the prisons by cleaning, remodeling, and establishing health care services and cultural centers in some prisons. The state described a plan to withdraw prisons from police control and management, making them entirely independent of the police. It also mentioned measures adopted by the legislature to support alternatives to permanent detention and create an office for assisted release. The European Union and the United Nations Development Program are providing support for these initiatives. In response to the petitioner’s concern that there are insufficient opportunities for inmates to participate in education and work programs, the state explained that it has signed many agreements with companies for this purpose, but did not say whether these agreements have been implemented.

Commissioner Rodrigo Escobar Gil, Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty, stated that during his visit to Uruguay, he noticed that the situation of persons deprived of liberty was very serious. Commissioner Escobar Gil first asked what measures the state was taking to reduce the abuse of pre-trial detention as a widespread practice. Second, he asked whether there have been bills introduced to implement alternatives to imprisonment or training programs geared towards rehabilitating inmates. Finally, he asked if there have been reforms in specific prisons where conditions were particularly grave during his visit. Commissioner Rosa María Ortiz requested information about a juvenile detention center where prisoners were confined for twenty-three hours a day and had limited access to education and health care.

In response to the Commissioner’s questions, the state explained that rather than closing the specific prisons where conditions had been particularly serious, the state had renovated those facilities and redistributed prisoners to address overcrowding. In regard to concerns about pre-trial detention, the state invoked Law 17726, which provides alternatives to imprisonment in some cases, but did not address the petitioner’s concerns about implementation of these measures. Additional planned legislative initiatives include reform of the Criminal Code, alternative sentencing measures, and a bill regulating the new National Institute of Rehabilitation (INR). In response to the situation of juveniles in the prison system, the state explained that the Uruguayan Congress is planning on creating a human rights institute that will serve as an umbrella agency dealing with human rights, including juvenile defense issues.