Federal policemen escort a group of prisoners toward a plane bound for an undisclosed location at the Morelia International Airport August 21, 2012.
Federal policemen escort a group of prisoners toward a plane bound for an undisclosed location at the Morelia International Airport August 21, 2012.
Leovigildo Gonzalez / Reuters

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.

An inmate answers a question from a journalist at La Nueva Esperanza Regional Penitentiary in Esteli, north of Managua February 24, 2012.
An inmate answers a question from a journalist at La Nueva Esperanza Regional Penitentiary in Esteli, north of Managua February 24, 2012.


According to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Central American prisons run at overcapacity levels that range from 128 percent, in Nicaragua, to 325 percent, in El Salvador. In Honduras, 7,000 people are incarcerated for the first time every year, but only 2,500 are released. At Quezaltepeque prison in El Salvador, 1,100 people live in facilities that are built for 400. In Costa Rica, the Constitutional Court called the overcrowding “critical” at La Reforma prison, which has a capacity for 2,056 people but held 3,328 people in 2013. The numbers can be even higher—up to five times over capacity—in police lockups, which are not included in prison occupancy statistics. In one, 23 men live in a nine-by-nine-foot cell. In many prisons, men sleep jaw-to-jaw in closely hung hammocks. Some take shifts sleeping on concrete floors. Drugs and extortion fuel a ruthless illicit economy within these prisons and in the surrounding neighborhoods. For example, a gang member can use a cell phone to order his subordinates to attack or kill local residents to enforce extortion demands. Guards are poorly paid and are often vulnerable to threats from gangs on the outside.

Inside the prisons, rehabilitative programs are rarely funded—if they exist in the first place. Education and legal services are also hard to find. And even with funding, it is difficult to deliver these services effectively in overcrowded spaces. El Salvador, for example, established an agricultural program that sought to provide female inmates with a positive activity that would allow them to learn new skills. The program, however, serves only a few hundred prisoners who are deemed to be low-risk. Costa Rica has created some legal and oversight capacity to improve due process, and has expanded job-skills training initiatives. But in the absence of such state programs, inmates self-govern and organize themselves to distribute food and other resources in a situation vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. When skill-building or trade programs for prisoners such as working in carpenter’s shops or bakeries are offered, they can barely compete with more lucrative illicit trades, both inside and outside of prisons. In many cases, even brief stints in prison are more likely to improve a person’s criminal skills and opportunities, while offering little chance of treating the underlying causes of his crimes or by providing meaningful paths to reintegration. 

Given the prominence of gangs and the often sensationalized media coverage that documents them, it is not surprising that much of the public thinks that prisoners in Central American facilities are aggressive, tattooed assassins. That some of the people incarcerated have committed brutal acts of violence does not justify the inhumane conditions they experience. In addition, a large portion of the incarcerated population—tattooed or not—is not dangerous. And some inmates are not necessarily guilty. 

One reason for this is Central American drug laws, which are often byproducts of Washington’s draconian War on Drugs. These policies have put thousands of people in prison for years over minor drug offenses that can carry sentences of up to 25 years—verdicts that are on par with (or even exceed) homicide sentences. One study found that 75 percent of people incarcerated on drug charges in Mexico are considered to be in prison for possession or low-level trafficking. Further, many of those behind bars as a result of harsh drug laws are women: the incarceration rate for women charged or convicted of drug offenses has jumped by 51 percent in the last decade and a half, while the incarceration for men has risen by 20 percent. Even though women are a minority of the total incarcerated population (2.7 to 9.7 percent in Central America), most are there on drug trafficking charges: 60–80 percent of incarcerated women in Latin America, compared to 30–40 percent of men. This arrest-and-imprison strategy is not only very costly but it has failed in its goals: drug consumption is higher than ever and the market for illicit substances has only grown. 

Even beyond drug policy, Central America’s mano dura (iron fist) approach to policing, especially against poor young men, when combined with glacial pace of its legal systems, has resulted in some of the world’s highest rates of pretrial detention. In Panama, 62 percent of inmates are awaiting trial; in Honduras, 50 percent of detainees await their day in court; and in Nicaragua, 12 percent of those jailed have yet to see their cases go to court. In the United States, that figure is 20.4 percent. Because of scarce and inconsistent data across the police, court, and prison agencies, it is difficult to estimate how many of those could or will be convicted if they were to face trial. Studies from other Latin American countries show that many people spend disproportionate periods in pretrial detention on minor charges, sometimes more than their likely sentence would require. In one study, a third of Brazilians in pretrial detention on minor theft charges have been held more than 100 days, while in Mexico 85 percent of those convicted received sentences of less than five years. Slow court proceedings, little access to public defense attorneys, and poor coordination with overwhelmed prison administrators mean that even those who have exceeded legal limits on pretrial detention are not necessarily released swiftly. Two human rights groups in Nicaragua say they know of 100 inmates for whom a judge has ordered release but the prison has yet to comply. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the overuse of pretrial detention is “one of the most serious and widespread problems in the region,” and it “runs contrary to the very essence of democratic rule of law.” Given the dire situation throughout Central American prisons, there is an urgent need not only to speed up case processing but also to reduce and rationalize sentence lengths overall, as well as to implement alternatives to custodial sentences. For many offenses, prison sentences could be eliminated entirely, and be replaced by alternatives such as community service or supervision, mediation, or minor fines.


Members of the 18th Street gang attend a mass at the prison of Izalco, about 65 km (40 miles) from San Salvador April 13, 2012.
Members of the 18th Street gang attend a mass at the prison of Izalco, about 65 km (40 miles) from San Salvador April 13, 2012.
Ulises Rodriguez / Reuters
Given the realities of prison systems in Central America, Nicaragua’s release of thousands of prisoners seems reasonable and perhaps even necessary. Recent research in the United States indicates that any detention of young people is more strongly to future criminal behavior than other risk factors, such as gang participation or family relationships, and usually comes with harmful psychological effects. For in-prison rehabilitation or education programs to overcome the harms of prison itself, they need to be robust. These initiatives are on the horizon throughout the region, even if they are still years away from being co-opted. In Argentina, for example, people sentenced to electronic monitoring (and who did not spend time in prison at all) had lower recidivism than a similar group sentenced to prison. More broadly, however, recidivism measures are a too-narrow lens for assessing the effects of prison, and in any case recidivism data in Central America are nearly nonexistent. Other consequences matter, too. Any period of incarceration—whether pretrial or sentenced—creates enormous costs for the person’s family, including legal bills, lost income, and, in Central America, basic supplies such as an inmate’s food and clothing. There are also fundamental human rights and dignity considerations. The conditions in most Central American prisons are a far cry from the recently revised United Nations minimum standards for treatment of people in prison, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules. The reduction of overcrowding conditions through mass releases is not a long-term policy solution, nor does it guarantee better health or treatment services. But if nothing else it leaves a little more breathing room for those still behind bars. 

Despite the poor quality and availability of data on crime in Nicaragua, there has been no discernible spike in serious crime there since the prisoner release. This may be related to the fact that Nicaragua’s mass release was rather modest: according to the government, the only prisoners eligible for early release were those who were serving five years or fewer, and who were convicted of minor or moderate charges. (The government’s claims cannot be verified.) Since Nicaraguan law permits parole after 60 percent of a sentence has been served, in many cases, prisoner releases could become a more extensive implementation of existing policy. In such cases, early release can be seen as a method of crime prevention—the fewer years in prison one serves, the logic goes, the less of a chance a person could become enmeshed in prison-based crime networks or suffer the post-incarceration consequences of lost employment and broken social ties. Although the parole system involves ongoing restrictions on the released people’s movements, there is no clear information on whether any of the paroled individuals have been rearrested.

Still, the early release initiative was not without its detractors. Some political opponents, such as Nicaragua’s PLI party, have claimed that releases were politically motivated, saying that the released people could be pressured to vote for the incumbent Sandinista party in the upcoming elections. Although this may be a stretch, there are suggestions that the government has used public agencies for partisan ends in the past. Some Nicaraguan analysts contend that the current Sandinista administration has increasingly used the police to repress social protest against the government. In addition, the lack of transparency about the process and the details of who was released foments ongoing public skepticism about compliance with basic rule of law principles. Human rights organizations have not had access to Nicaraguan prisons since 2008. A human rights leader argued that the judicial branch, not the executive, should decide on the details of and criteria for such a release. Whether or not the motives behind Nicaragua’s prisoner release are altruistic, self-serving, or economical, their results are clear.


If Nicaragua’s prisoner release decision demonstrates anything, it’s that less incarceration can in fact be beneficial for both prisoners and the criminal justice system. At best, it could even encourage other Central American countries to move in a similar direction. The most straightforward action—though perhaps not an easy one—would be to release people whose pretrial detention has exceeded a given limit, who have completed sentences, or who have completed a portion of their sentence for minor or nonviolent offenses. Countries could also dramatically expand and implement alternatives to incarceration, such as community sentences or restorative processes, and establish noncustodial pretrial services, as well as alternatives to using prison for those who cannot pay cash bail or to threaten those who do not pay child support. Another step would be to decriminalize certain drugs, including but not limited to marijuana (in line with trends in several U.S. states, Uruguay, and, potentially, Canada), as well as lower-level roles within drug trafficking networks. The United Nations Special Session on drugs this April may open new international policy options on this front. But it would not address the full extent of the over-incarceration problem in Central America. Many young people in prisons are there for violent crime convictions, often committed in gang situations.

The militarized, combat-style ethos of mano dura policing has been counterproductive: homicide rates are soaring in El Salvador and Honduras. Youth need real economic opportunities and alternative, nonviolent forms of social status and conflict resolution. And those who are in prison and not likely eligible for any early release need (and have the right to) decent conditions and basic education, counseling, and recreation services that steer them away from prison-based crime. One-time mass releases are too crude a policy tool to build all of this. But they can create the literal space inside prisons for new approaches, as well as political and rhetorical space in the public debate about if and how Central America could break away from its overreliance on incarceration as a response to crime.

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  • JENNIFER PEIRCE is a Ph.D. student in criminal justice at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a P. E. Trudeau Foundation Scholar.
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