Prison Populations Are Exploding in Latin America. Here’s Why.


Mass incarceration is not just a big issue in the U.S. It’s also a phenomenon in Latin America. Countries there “have seen their prison populations increase by more than half” in the last 15 years, with prison populations in Colombia and Brazil “more than doubling,” according to a study published in the International Criminal Justice Review. The research looked at how factors like political stability, government effectiveness, homicide rates, and unemployment relate to incarceration rates in the region.

The study was written by Ph.D. student Katherine Limoncelli and Professors Jeff Mellow and Chongmin Na (John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center).

The study notes that Latin America’s prisons are operating on average at levels 60 percent over capacity. Conditions often include shortages of food, water, and beds; poor sanitation and hygiene; violence between prisoners, and between staff and prisoners; and insufficient measures to control HIV, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases.

Many countries have an “iron fist” (mano dura) approach to policing with tough-on-crime policies and long, punitive sentences. The authors found this approach has “significantly increased the prison population” while largely failing “to control violent crime.” Latin America has just 9 percent of the global population, but 33 percent of the world’s murders.

Among the study’s most surprising findings: As governments become more effective, prison populations increase. Why? Because countries with “higher quality public services and civil services, along with other crime control resources,” have the funds and facilities needed for police, courts, and jails to function. Despite increasing the number of inmates, though, effective governments also manage to reduce prison crowding, likely because more facilities are being built and space is used more efficiently.

Greater political stability also predicts higher prison populations, perhaps because officials respond to public concerns about security by stepping up enforcement.

The study noted a “significant correlation between income inequality and homicide rates.” High crime rates also hurt the economy, dampening tourism and changing consumer behavior. Unemployment, however, was found to have little correlation with incarceration.

The researchers concluded by hoping that officials in the region will consider alternatives to mass incarceration like community service and rehabilitation, along with taking steps to curb human rights violations and improve prison conditions.

Beyond SUM

Work By

Katherine Limoncelli (Ph.D. candidate, Criminal Justice ) | Profile 1 | Profile 2
Jeff Mellow (Professor, Criminal Justice) | Profile 1
Chongmin Na (Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice) | Profile 1 | Profile 2