They have been awake for six hours and they do not know what else to do with themselves. They have already had breakfast, bread and milk, and have washed the prison floor. The guards watch them from behind the bars. They are also bored.
Around 40 teenagers, in a cell that should not accommodate more than ten, wrap one hand in a towel or a t-shirt and hit whoever is in front of them with all their might. Punches to the face, the ribs, the head… It is an all-out battle between two teams, beating each other senseless to pass the time of day.
It is midday and they have already had lunch. Lined up one behind the other, three willowy boys, with gaunt faces and looks of resignation, are escorted by four ‘educator guards’, the term used for the officials working in Paraguay’s detention centres for young offenders.
Handcuffed, they are pushed into the main yard. From there they are taken, dragging their feet, to a small office. Metal cuffs on their skinny wrists, shame and anger imprinted on their eyes. They have just returned from making their declarations before the court regarding their respective cases.
They arrive just in time for the two hours a day of voluntary learning. They are escorted in by the guards as another 80 or so teenagers put wooden chairs in the central porch of the U-shaped building which houses the prison blocks and cells.
Released from their shackles, they walk decisively, backs straight and shoulders back, but with their heads down, walking as if they are important or braving, with gritted teeth, a “disciplinary beating” received on the way back from the court. In the yard, they are surrounded by their whole “gang”, their circle of trust, other boys, all bored, all anxious, all alert. They question them, badger them, all in Guaraní [editor’s note: one of the official languages of Paraguay, which is also the name of the currency], barring the odd word in Spanish. They disappear into the corridors amongst their peers.
It is very hot and humid. There is a stench, a mixture of sweat, bleach, urine and cigarette. Around 400 boys aged between 14 and 17 at the Itaugua Detention Centre are condemned to boredom in infernal cells, bursting with energy, sometimes angry, sometimes violent. They may be entitled to a bed with a mattress or simply a mattress on the floor. In some instances, the latter is the better option, it is cooler. In any case, the beds are not great: old wooden structures infested with cockroaches. The bathrooms? Cold water and total squalor. Each prison block has a hole in the ground, where as many as 40 boys have to defecate, urinate and even shower, with a pitiful stream of cold water.
It is hot, and ice is one of the small luxuries they all ask their visitors to bring, to add to their tereré, the yerba-mate-infusion prepared with cold water and drunk religiously in Paraguay. There are no obvious restrictions other than their having to go back to their cells when it is time. They all carry flasks, with plastic and metal straws. They drink their traditional infusion, just as they would on the outside.
They spend most of their time in the dilapidated cells, because there is no serious rehabilitation programme. Between the sweat, the violence and the drugs, they count the hours until their next attempt to escape.
“Persecution of the poorest”
Seventeen-year-old Juan M. has already done so several times, the last being the previous week. He planned it with nine other boys, taking advantage of the guards’ momentary inattention to jump a more than three-metre-high fence. Just a few strides away was the road to freedom.
The boy is in Itaugua, a poor city on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. A bus pulls up beside him. Brandishing a knife fashioned out of plastic, Juan mugs a woman who alights the vehicle. “I just put pressure on her to give me her mobile phone and her sports shoes. I was barefoot, you see,” he tells Equal Times while sitting in the patio of the detention centre. His adventure on the outside lasted two days. His mother called the police when she found him at home, asleep in a cloud of crack.
“I went to see my girlfriend. I ate barbecue, we went to dance and I exchanged the mobile phone for 80,000 Guaraní (around €10) of crack,” he explains, with satisfaction.
Juan is just one example of the consequences of the Paraguayan penitentiary system; a product of the persecution of the poorest, delayed justice and judicial corruption.
The rights violations awaiting young offenders are identical to those endured by adult prisoners.
The overcrowded conditions into which the Paraguayan state locks teenagers are as squalid and as unlawful as those it provides for the adults. What’s more, almost 95 per cent of those being held in juvenile detention centres have not been sentenced but are held on remand awaiting trial for 11 months on average, according to the figures of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture (MNP), an independent state body that supervises the penitentiary system and the work of the judiciary and the executive branch of government, to prevent human rights violations.
In the case of the adults, only 2,000 out of Paraguay’s total prison population of 13,000 have been convicted. The rest are in held in prison without being sentenced, which makes it the country with the biggest backlog of judicial cases in the region, according to the justice minister, Carla Bacigalupo.
In Tacumbú, the country’s largest prison, located in Asuncion, only 800 people have been convicted out of the 4000 or so inmates packed into this institution with a capacity for around 1,600, according to official figures. Many of those locked up in Tacumbú sleep on cardboard boxes in the corridors or the prison yards. They do not even have the right to a cell. They are called pasilleros (corridor people).
If you want a cell, you have to pay for it or build it. The money circulates amongst the prison mafia, made up of guards, officials and high-level prisoners such as drug traffickers and bank robbers. It is the same for food or soap. A miserable ration of food is distributed among the poorest inmates but for the rest the prison is full of canteens selling all types of food.
“Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment”
With the growing crack market and the lack of hygiene, the lack of decent beds or cells, as well as the absence of any effective rehabilitation programme, Paraguay’s biggest jail has been turned into a rat hole.
A report by the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture (MNP) describes the deficiencies of the penal system as “historic” and speaks of “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment”.
The government of President Horacio Cartes, of the conservative Colorado Party, inaugurated his term of office in 2013 announcing plans to reform the penitentiary system, a pledge that has not yet been fulfilled.
To date, the proposals put forward by the Justice Ministry have been to invest in new blocks in some prisons and to announce the construction of more jails. But the overcrowding has not been reduced, nor has a rehabilitation process been established for all prisoners.
Neither the executive nor the judicial authorities have done anything to reduce judges’ abusive recourse to preventive detention, which send thousands of youngsters to prison without being tried, as highlighted by James L. Cavallaro of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in his latest report on a recent visit to Paraguay.
The number of prisoners in the country has grown by 417 per cent since 1995, when the total prison population was 2,974, according to the MNP.
Paraguay’s main jail is an absurdity, a Dante’s Inferno for anyone who has ever seen a prison, but it is also the best option for most prisoners given that most of the population lives in Asuncion and having family close by is essential to securing the financial support and the power needed to buy rights and protection inside.
Some 60 guards oversee the 4,000 inmates. Every so often there is a riot, a jailbreak, an injury or even a death by stabbing. Inmates have also been killed with firearms. Tacumbú is a small-scale representation of Paraguayan society, a cocktail of injustices, classism, violence and tranquil resignation.