Prison conditions remained harsh and in some cases life-threatening, due primarily to overcrowding, a shortage of prison guards, lack of medical services, and inadequate sanitary conditions.
Physical Conditions: As of September the prison system had an intended capacity of 8,406 persons but held 15,578 prisoners (14,501 male and 1,077 female). In an effort to alleviate overcrowding, the government released 1,024 inmates who had completed two-thirds of their sentences.
Authorities held men and women, and juveniles and adults, separately. Pretrial detainees shared cells with convicted prisoners due to space constraints. Prison authorities continued to separate the two groups. Through August authorities separated 60 percent of pretrial detainees from convicted prisoners. Although prison conditions for women were generally better than those for men, both populations remained in overcrowded facilities, with poor medical care and lack of basic supplies for personal hygiene. Juvenile pretrial and custodial detention centers also suffered from overcrowding and poor conditions. Inmates had inadequate supervision. During the year authorities hired 136 new prison guards, but there were only a total of 879 prison guards nationwide despite the need for 1,400. In all prisons inmates complained of limited time outside cells and limited access for family members. Small jails attached to local police stations sometimes held prisoners for days or weeks, and police officers who guarded them lacked the necessary custodial training to prevent abuses.
The administration took limited steps to address prison overcrowding, such as through the Council for Penitentiary Policies’ decision to equip new hearing rooms within the La Joya and La Joyita complex, which would increase the number of hearings scheduled per week. A new hearing room inaugurated in December 2013 had not been equipped as of October.
Hypertension, diabetes, dermatitis, and respiratory illnesses were the most common diseases among the prison population. Prison medical care was inadequate due to lack of personnel and medical resources. Prison medical units lacked insulin. Relatives of inmates were allowed to bring medicines with permission from the authorities, although some relatives paid bribes to agents to bypass the required clearances. Penitentiary system officials complained to Panamanian National Police (PNP) authorities that PNP agents confiscated or destroyed inmates’ medicines during raids. Penitentiary system officials reported there were five physicians at the La Joya-La Joyita complex, as well as one physician each in the women’s prison, the Colon prison, El Renacer, and Tinajitas. Clinics within La Joya and La Joyita prisons provided first aid and basic medical assistance but lacked the capacity to attend to serious medical problems. In some facilities there was a lack of potable water and inadequate ventilation and lighting.
Of the 135 complaints by prisoners to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman as of November, the overwhelming majority were related to poor or inadequate medical attention, police abuse, and problems with the transportation system to attend medical appointments. La Joyita had a 48-bed clinic, but it remained underused due to the lack of guards to watch ill detainees, as well as a lack of medical equipment for more serious cases. Authorities transferred patients with serious issues to public clinics instead, but there were constant difficulties arranging for transportation of the inmates to public clinics. The penitentiary system did not have an ambulance in service; inmates had to be transported in police vehicles when they were available, and no medical assistance was provided during transportation. Upon arrival at a public hospital, a British inmate from La Joya prison died of injuries sustained in a fall, after waiting hours for transportation. Between January and November, an estimated 60 percent of inmates missed medical appointments due to a lack of escorts from the National Police.
As of November eight inmates died in inmate-on-inmate violence, one committed suicide, one died of injuries sustained in a fall, and 28 died due to chronic illnesses and natural causes.
As of July a total of 3,169 inmates were enrolled in education programs inside and outside the prisons. As of September, 1,974 inmates worked inside and outside the prisons. The system continued to apply the “2x1” reduction in time served (one day reduced for each two days of work or study).
Administration: Updated software for prison recordkeeping was operational only in three prisons (La Chorrera, Llano Marin, and La Joyita); the other prisons used an older version, and planned updates were delayed. Judges may order probation as an alternative to sentencing for nonviolent juvenile offenders. As of October judges placed nonviolent juvenile offenders on probation, which required psychological counseling, regular school attendance, and regular meetings with a social worker. Thirty-four juvenile offenders were granted house arrest as of October. The new accusatory justice system, active in four provinces at year’s end, includes provisions for plea bargaining and thus reduces imprisonment of nonviolent adult offenders.
The 2011 pilot program for electronic monitoring for nonviolent pretrial inmates remained suspended. Inmates manipulated the devices by prying them open, leaving the premises, and then returning without anyone realizing it. Penitentiary system representatives continued to study the use of electronic bracelets for inmates.
Prisoners could submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions, but authorities did not document the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner. The Ombudsman’s Office negotiated and petitioned on behalf of prisoners and received complaints about prison conditions. The Ombudsman’s Office continued to conduct weekly prison visits, and the government generally did not monitor its meetings with prisoners. As of October the Ombudsman’s Office had received 15 complaints of physical abuse committed by PNP agents, 50 complaints about lack of access to medical care, 19 complaints about lack of access to legal counsel, and four complaints about denial of access to education.
Prisoners at most facilities had reasonable access to visitors, although relatives of inmates at times had to wait in line between 5 a.m. and 3 p.m. outside the prisons to obtain access for approved visits and were strip-searched before entering. Prisoners could observe their religious practices.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers, including a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) delegation, which subsequently issued a comprehensive report on corruption within the prison system. The Catholic nongovernmental organization (NGO) Justice and Peace made regular visits and reported unobstructed access by various church groups of different faiths. Human rights NGOs wishing access to the prisons during fixed visiting hours of 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. must send a written request to the National Directorate of the Penitentiary System 15 days in advance. Per recommendations at the 2013 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearing, the Varela administration issued invitations to the UNODC and the IACHR to visit the country to advise on procedures to address problems associated with overcrowding, illegal conduct, and lengthy prison detentions. The government advised the IACHR that the judicial branch increased the number of video hearings to speed up cases and reduce lengthy detentions.