Corruption, overcrowding, systematic failure and government cover-ups lead to Ecuador’s prison crisis: A U.S. criminal justice expert weighs in
By Luis Barrios
For several years now, the Ecuadorian prison system has suffered from problems of corruption, overcrowding, violence, and poor infrastructure. While available reports indicate that there have been more than 316 deaths in the nation’s prisons since 2021, no one has yet been held responsible. Some accounts ascribe the violence to wars between groups for control of the prisons and the incapacity of government security forces to intervene, given their complicity and even participation in weapon and drug trafficking within these facilities. These diagnoses are, however, over-simplifications that gloss over the systematic failures of the war on drugs that have replicated decades-long dynamics observed and documented in the United States.
On March 28, 2023, the Prison Observatory was born as a liberating platform in order to contest such over-simplifications, and to develop a multi-factor explanation with the capacity to generate broad-based solutions to this crisis of humanity.
The primary aims of the Prison Observatory are: to carry out a community audit, monitor the dynamics of incarceration, and propose ethnographic narratives centering family ties and defense of human rights. The Observatory responds to the violence of prison environments and amplifies the voices that might humanize those who are currently — or have previously been — incarcerated. It is a collaborative project between the Committee of Relatives for Justice in Prisons, Kaleidos, the University of Cuenca’s Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDH) in Guayaquil, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
In collaboration with inmates and their families, the Observatory will generate reliable data using indicators of human rights violations, prison violence, and inmates’ human capital that will supplement official statistics and administrative records. Family members of those who are currently incarcerated will take part in a weekly survey that will yield insights from qualitative and quantitative data relevant to the institution as well as to the families themselves. This continuous survey will feed into a publicly available database hosted by the Observatory’s website, which will also be integrated and aggregated with EthnoData’s interactive tools and resources. The Observatory will also conduct a monthly survey of prison wardens as a way to monitor the realities and perceptions of prison policies and their effects. The purpose of these surveys is to improve research-based governance in the field of prison rehabilitation and to promote transparency and accountability in the prison system.
In addition to the generation and dissemination of more relevant and reliable data, we will also use EtnhoData to co-produce documentary films and audio reports with families and the loved ones of those who have disappeared in the prison system.
The Commission for Penitentiary Dialogue and Pacification
On December 16, 2021, President Guillermo Lasso formed the Commission for Penitentiary Dialogue and Pacification with the stated mission of developing strategies to avoid violent deaths and eradicate cruelty in prisons. As one of the Commissioners, I directly observed efforts to integrate political tactics and media methods into what I refer to as a “media-political strategy,” while obviating the systematic and analytic orientation that will be necessary to end the horrific massacres and wars between groups of prisoners. From the beginning, many of the commissioners realized that our mandate was to produce cosmetic reports to serve as propaganda; we were being charged to describe symptoms, while being prevented from seeking explanations and solutions that dealt adequately with the underlying problems. The Commission’s mandate ended in June 2022, but the massacres continued unabated. This would later become a significant opportunity upon which to conceptualize and construct a set of transformative interventions in the form of the Prison Observatory.
As a member of the Commission, I was given access to more than 24 prisons in Ecuador, including authorization to personally visit places that are typically prohibited and speak with people who have no contact with the outside world. This gave me the opportunity to observe, listen, and understand realities inside the prisons that are concealed to the outside world. Whether this access was born of an unintentional oversight or explicit judgment on the part of governing authorities is not clear. In either case, this enabled us to feel inmates’ intense frustration and suffering, and to identify eight previously unexamined phenomena that I will share here.
The first phenomenon is the absence of any programs for rehabilitation, habilitation, or reintegration into general society. Each of these processes must include both general programs and individualized action and support plans, as well as the possibility of immediate sentence-suspension and social reinstatement according to an established set of appropriate criteria. Instead, incarcerated people are subjected to an environment that actively undermines their efforts towards self-improvement in service of becoming productive members of society.
Second, because these carceral institutions do not offer the basic guarantees of rehabilitation, habilitation, or social reintegration — nor are rates of recidivism versus rehabilitation tracked by any rubric — it is inaccurate to describe these institutions as “rehabilitation centers,” as many of them are termed. Since the construction of valid and reliable data from which to examine and address social problems requires the use of terminology that adequately describes the observed phenomena, we must instead refer to these punishment warehouses as “prisons.”
Third, while indicators and patterns of violence — both inside and outside prison environments — are conventionally circumscribed to personal and interpersonal incidents of harm, it is essential to also recognize the role of institutionalized, structural violence that is often perpetrated against incarcerated people themselves. In the narratives and explanations provided to the Commission reporting incidents of violence among incarcerated populations, we have found a persistent absence of accounts of structural violence such as the deprivation of nutritionally adequate food, the refusal of access to essential medical and educational services, the denial of minimal opportunities for contact with immediate family members, and a lack of services for rehabilitation, habilitation, and social reintegration. These violations of foundational human rights were nowhere more egregious, in my observations, than in the physical, psychological, and social violence of overcrowding. The Prison Observatory project is born, in large part, from the insight that the multiple axes of violence experienced by the incarcerated population and their loved ones in Ecuador require a multi-dimensional response.
Fourth, we must acknowledge the overwhelming disproportionality of youth in the incarcerated population, essentially constituting prisons as juvenile detention centers where young people are subject to penal practices that actively inhibit the possibility of rehabilitation and social reintegration. On the basis of our socio-visual census, approximately 75 percent of this prison population are young people between 18 and 35 years of age. A socioeconomic analysis would, with near certainty, indicate that these young people belong to the working class. The phenomena are so self-evident as to suggest that direct discrimination against poor young people has been declared an explicit legislative policy priority. This disproportional incarceration seems to further pertain to other particularly vulnerable social groups, including Black people, LGBTQIA+ people, the elderly, immigrants and those without citizenship, and individuals with drug addiction and physical and mental illness, among others.
The fifth phenomenon is bare-faced corruption. While observing in these two-dozen penal facilities, I directly witnessed prisoners with machine guns, grenades, drones, and satellite phones, among other contraband. The explanation that family members are smuggling these items behind the gaze of vigilant monitors is disingenuous. I repeatedly observed the efficient — though inhumane — screening process to which relatives were subjected by the National Service for Comprehensive Care for Adults Deprived of Liberty and Adolescent Offenders (SNAI), that led to the confiscation of far more inconspicuous and urgent necessities like life-saving medications. How else can we account for the fact that the collection of data by government authorities only begins after a massacre? Indeed, our interviews with prisoner-leaders regularly confirmed and substantiated accounts that weapons and drugs are entering the prison system with the participation of SNAI personnel. The corruption of SNAI is systemic — according to our field notes many official personnel are on cartel payrolls — making it highly unlikely that they might carry out “comprehensive care” and rehabilitation of incarcerated people. Hence the need to eliminate the SNAI and replace it with another agency that can earn its credibility through transparency, accountability, and good governance.
The sixth phenomenon is the overt contradiction between the stated aims and the actual practices of government agencies — especially SNAI — who claim that they are unable, rather than unwilling, to correct the systematic failures of their agencies. The formation of our commissioned spectacle is one obvious example of the variety of tactics used to subvert alignment between the rhetoric and reality of government practice. The only way to expose this yawning chasm — thus making it possible to reduce prison violence and the structural conditions with which it is associated over time —is to subject criminal and police monitoring, intelligence, surveillance, and confiscation practices to intensive investigative scrutiny.
Following this is the glaring absence of a systematic prison census. It is impossible to solve a problem that remains concealed from public scrutiny, out of the reach of scholars, advocates, and political debates. There is absolutely no excuse for the absence of a digital database that allows for a full and public accounting of the incarcerated population, now and over time. We cannot address these horrific conditions, nor can we know that our efforts are effective, without this intervention that is the foundation of the Prison Observatory initiative.
Finally, the eighth phenomenon we observed is the absence of a national program of prevention as an alternative to incarceration. Urban crime is both characterized and caused by multiple factors and forms. Thus, it is typically advantageous to take a coordinated, inter-agency approach and to respond at the local level in accordance with an integrated action plan for the prevention of crime. Crime prevention programs can be divided into three categories: community prevention, situational prevention, and risk-focused crime prevention. While far more effective than incarceration in reducing crime, crime prevention programs also require more short-term investment. This has been eliminated and undermined by Ecuador’s recent deepening of neoliberal policies favoring capitalist industry and ideology, to the great detriment of Ecuador’s citizens.
The Tragedy of Self-Fulfilling Failures
As a member of the Commission, I was most dismayed to see, hear, and feel how the government and many media outlets were reducing the complexities of the social construction of crime and criminality through vulgar depictions that instead blamed the victims. Their explanations of these prison massacres willfully disregard the government’s role in producing the aforementioned phenomena and, in doing so, preemptively exculpate a likely accomplice.
It continues to be most painful to experience the so-called “prison and criminal intelligence” presented by the SNAI that seemed always to be one step too slow to detect the massacres in time to save hundreds of lives. It was always after the massacres that they would then pronounce their “expert opinions,” prepared in advance and sanctioned for disclosure, only to be delivered as nefarious eulogies. In accordance with this marionette drama, these actors seem determined to allow — even authorize — the most vulnerable under their control to murder each other as further evidence for pre-fabricated narratives painting the criminal character as innate and irredeemable. I have been able to resist such a cynical, anti-intellectual, and self-fulfilling interpretation only because I recognize these young people in prison as our own sons and daughters. Most of these incarcerated people are victims of structural violence who suffer—as in far too many other countries—from the systematic incarceration of poor and working-class young people. This reality is certainly familiar to us in the United States: while the rich get richer, the poor get prison.
From the beginning, President Lasso’s Commission was created as spectacle. The government never intended to objectively interpret, in good faith, the reality of prisons — much less the realities of prisoners — in Ecuador. This Commission was an example of what Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Márquez proclaimed in Chronicles of a Death Foretold: it was nothing more than a rumor that revictimized its subjects, hiding sincerity, the will to do good, and the proclamation of truth, through a noisy and complicit silence. While there is ostensible consensus that the war on drugs is a failure, it continues to replicate and metastasize, fulfilling its function to national and transnational capital as well as a complicit state. In this theater of shadow puppetry, the Commission serves its own purpose, legitimizing more investment in the security force whose corruption it conceals. Self-fulfilling failures must be demystified for the functions and functionaries they fulfill.
Prof. Luis Barrios is a PhD in Clinical-Community Psychology with a specialty in Forensics, Criminal Justice, and Mediation/Conflict Resolution. He has been a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice-City University of New York for the past 30 years and has authored and co-authored a number of books and professional articles. In August 2022, he was invited by the Ombudsman of Ecuador to be part of the Special Investigation Commission to support the construction of peace and national reconciliation. From December to June 2022, he served as a member of the Commission for Penitentiary Dialogue and Pacification appointed by President Guillermo Lasso Mendoza. He is also an Anglican Catholic priest in the Diocese of New York.