President Guillermo Lasso has signed an order that could allow an estimated 5,200 inmates early release from the country’s over-crowded prisons. During a Tuesday interview, he said that judges will have the final say in all cases.
A series of 2021 riots in the nation’s prisons left more than 300 inmates dead and 200 more injured. Officials blame the violence on gang warfare related to illegal drug trafficking in Ecuador’s port cities, especially Guayaquil, Manta, Machala and Esmeraldas.
Lasso’s plan includes a $27 million investment in rehabilitation for those released, although the government did not provide details. Critics of the prison system claim there is currently almost no effort to rehabilitate or educate inmates in the prisons.
To be eligible for early release, inmates must have served at least 60 percent of their sentences for crimes such as theft, fraud or abuse of trust; have no other legal actions pending against them; and have committed no offenses while incarcerated.
“This measure will relieve the over-crowding in our penitentiaries and provide relief not only for inmates but for the guards and law enforcement personnel responsible for maintaining order,” Lasso said. “Today, we have 34.821 people housed in a system designed for 30,169.”
He added that his plan was developed in consultation with prison officials, the Constitutional Court and the Prosecutor’s Office. “This is not an arbitrary program. It is one that considers the security of the population first and the rights of prisoners second. Every case will be reviewed by judges before a release is granted.”
Lasso’s plan is being attacked by some law enforcement and prison experts for being inadequate. Alexandra Zumárraga, former Social Rehabilitation director, said she worries that some prisoners who committed acts of violence could be released. “It is not clear whether those involved in theft did not physically assault their victims,” she said. “I would consider it a red line that those who used violence should not be eligible for release.”
She added that the plan is “only a patch” to a bigger problem and that a systematic approach is needed to reduce prison violence and protect the public. “There are almost no rehabilitation programs functioning within the prisons. There are no workshops, no classes and almost no activities. The prisoners have nothing to do and this leads to mischief and ultimately to violence.”
Quito criminal attorney and former prison official Steven Reyes said the government should conduct a “deep evaluation” of why Ecuador’s prison population has increased 400 percent in 15 years. “Are people being imprisoned for non-violent crimes that could be punished and rehabilitated outside the system? Once they are in prison they are forced to join gangs to survive and become radicalized and violent. Our entire criminology approach must be reconsidered.”