Blog: Opinion

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February 11, 2011

Op-Ed on Prisons in Panama: Tragedy at Tocumen, A Call for Real Reform

The following Op-Ed appeared today in La Prensa, Panama’s main newspaper. It was written by Jim Cavallaro, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program, and María Luisa Romero, JD ’08, who has been working with the International Human Rights Clinic on prison conditions in Panama since her 2L year.

A fire in the Juvenile Detention Center in Tocumen, Panama, last month claimed the lives of five teenagers.  The fire was apparently caused by tear gas bombs.  Reports indicate that the police laughed at the teenagers as they burned.  The Panamanian government has responded with promises to improve prison conditions, including plans to increase capacity through the construction of new centers.

For those unfamiliar with prison dynamics, the promise of more and better infrastructure may seem like an appropriate response to the problems of the Panamanian prison system.  Although improvements in infrastructure would improve the situation to some extent, the construction of new prisons is an inadequate response, and one that appears to repeat unfortunate pattern in Panama.

For the past five years, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School has been studying and documenting conditions in the adult prison system in Panama.  In 2008, the Clinic published an exhaustive report in which we documented not only overcrowding and unhygienic conditions, but also profound institutional failures.  Rather than professional guards, internal prison security is often left to police officers, who are not trained for this work.

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