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Human Rights in Panama
Flag of Panama Panama
Population: 3,000,463 (July 2004 est.)
Capital: Panama
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Panama Human Rights Report
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Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits the use of measures that could harm the physical, mental, or moral integrity of prisoners or detainees, and the public security forces generally performed in a professional and restrained manner. However, there was at least one reported case of excessive use of force against prison inmates during the year, and abuse by prison guards was an occasional problem. The General Penitentiary Directorate (DGSP) asserted that the problem had been reduced and that only minor incidents occurred.

During the year, police generally exercised restraint in their treatment of street protesters. In September, there were large protests and demonstrations in Panama, Colon, David, and other cities regarding the social security system. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets, arrested 20 people, and reported 14 people injured (see Section 2.b.).

Prison conditions remained harsh and, in some cases, life threatening, due largely to budget constraints. As of mid-December, the prison system, which had an official capacity of approximately 7,400 persons, held 11,491 prisoners. Most prisons were dilapidated and overcrowded. Many of the problems within the prisons resulted not only from obvious overcrowding but also from the lack of separation of inmates according to the type or severity of the crime committed. Pretrial detainees shared cells with sentenced prisoners, in part due to lack of space.

Medical care was inadequate. AIDS, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases were common among the prison population. Several prisons suffered from water shortages during the year. The European Union funded some legal, medical, and dental staff for prisons, and there was at least one doctor in each major facility. As of November, 15 inmates had died, 8 from AIDS.

In August, a new law that partially reorganized the prison system took effect. The new law gives civil service protection to guards and wardens, some of whom were former political activists who obtained their jobs through political patronage. The law also specifies new procedures to discipline inmates who violate prison rules and for the issuance of work release permits for those who are incarcerated.

There were some minor improvements in the prison system overall, including two orientation sessions for new civilian prison guards, who received courses on inmates' rights and penitentiary procedures. The DGSP announced that it was in the process of hiring some 150 new civilian guards. Other improvements included increased Internet access and computer literacy training for the first time in some women's prisons, and more opportunities for work and training in prison.

The DGSP largely depended on 1,500 PNP officers to supply both internal and perimeter security at all prisons. There were only 365 civilian corrections officers (or "custodians") for the entire prison system. As a result, regular PNP officers still were used to fill staffing gaps. PNP officers were sometimes untrained for prison duty and found the assignment distasteful, which contributed to tension and abuses within the prison system. Civilian custodians handled inmates within Nueva Esperanza, Tinajitas, and the central women's prison, which used only female officers. El Renacer prison had civilian custodians during daylight hours, after which PNP guards took over. The DGSP did not have authority to discipline prison guards with criminal or civil sanctions; only the PNP disciplinary board could sanction a PNP agent or a custodian.

Abuse by prison guards, both PNP and civilian, was a recurrent problem. Police officials acknowledged that they received and investigated 37 cases during the year; 2 for abuse of authority, 6 for physical mistreatment of prisoners, and 1 for rape.

The main prisons in Panama City included La Joya (a maximum-security facility), Tinajitas, the Feminine Center (women's prison), and the Juvenile Detention Center. One additional facility, El Renacer, held inmates generally accused of less serious crimes. The island penal colony of Coiba, where conditions were particularly harsh, remained open but held only 38 inmates.

In Nueva Esperanza prison in Colon province, both male and female pavilions had separate sections for inmates convicted of administrative felonies, so they were not put together with inmates convicted of violent crimes.

There were prisons of significant size in David, Santiago, and other towns. Small jails attached to local police stations around the country sometimes held prisoners for the entire length of their sentence. The authorities frequently did not address cases of abuse and neglect in these provincial jails, due to their low profile in the prison system.

Throughout the country, conditions at women's prisons and at juvenile detention centers were noticeably better than at adult male prisons. However, female prisoners, especially those in the primary detention area, reportedly suffered from overcrowding, poor medical care, and lack of basic supplies for personal hygiene.

While there was one modern juvenile detention center near Panama City, several juvenile detention centers throughout the country suffered from inadequate resources to provide for education or adequate supervision of children, many of whom spent the majority of their time in a bare cell.

The law and the Penal Code provide for conditional release programs for inmates charged with minor offenses who have served a substantial part of their sentence; however, this provision was not implemented consistently in practice. A conditional release program was part of the organizational reforms that authorities introduced in 1998. During the year, the DGSP provided conditional release forms to the President for her signature in a more timely manner than in previous years.

The Government generally allowed prison visits by independent human rights observers. However, the authorities arranged appointments ahead of time, and monitors generally spoke to prisoners in the presence of guards or administrators. Prisoners expressed fear of retaliation if they complained. Justicia y Paz, the Catholic Church's human rights monitoring group, brought prison abuses to the attention of the authorities.

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Data Source: US Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs.