CNS PHOTO | JORGE ADORNO, REUTERS
Church workers try to help inmates such as this man peering through a barred window at Tacumbu high security prison in Paraguay.
A Feb. 3 riot at San Pedro Prison in Lima, Peru, left one inmate dead, less than two months after a fight between rival groups in San Miguel Prison in Santiago, Chile, led to a fire in which 81 inmates died.
The prison in the Chilean capital housed nearly twice the number of inmates it was designed to hold, while San Pedro's stark, concrete buildings, built for about 3,000 men, now house some 8,000.
San Pedro, Lima's largest prison, also is dangerous, a school for crime, a public health hazard and a place where inmates essentially govern themselves, according to Ricardo La Serna, a member of the prison ministry leadership team at the Peruvian Conference of Bishops' social action commission.
"None of this has happened by accident," La Serna said.
Prison populations have climbed steadily in recent years throughout Latin America, partly because of rising crime rates, but also because of stiffer sentences for recidivism and for activities that formerly were not considered crimes, such as protests that block highways.
Because Latin America's prisons are chronically short-staffed, inmates devise their own system of order, in which crime kingpins may demand payment from prisoners further down the pecking order. Disputes over power lead to riots such as those in San Miguel and San Pedro.
Amid the chaos, Church workers provide education, health care and legal aid, treating inmates as human beings. Their work "is not only a testimony of faith, it is demanded by the human principles of society," La Serna said.
Between 1995 and 2005, prison populations more than doubled in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay, and increased by more than half in Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay and Peru. Only Venezuela registered a decrease in its prison population.
As a result, most prisons are over capacity, forcing inmates to sleep on floors or in corridors or patios.
Income distribution in Latin America is among the most unequal in the world, and studies show that prison populations climb with increasing income inequality. Worse yet, many Church workers have found, is the high proportion of inmates who have not yet been tried for their alleged crimes.
"In recent years, many people from Bolivia have migrated to Spain, leaving their children with a relative, such as an uncle or a grandmother," said Oblate Father Oscar Dewulf. "They send money home to their kids, but they don't use it well."
For the children left behind, lack of parental guidance combined with easy access to pornography often results in sexual violence, Dewulf said, who works with a prison ministry team in a youth detention centre in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Experts say rehabilitation is one area in which most of the region's prisons fail.
"The main problem is the lack of personnel to assist and rehabilitate the young people," Dewulf said.
"There should be a lawyer, a psychologist, an educator, a social worker, enough teachers to ensure that the young people finish school and to provide training, because these youths are deprived of freedom, but not of the right to an education."
In many cases, there is no budget for even the basics.
In Peru and other countries, prison ministers provide health care, counselling, sacraments and legal assistance, but La Serna said more Church involvement is needed.
Parishes must address the issues that send people to prison in the first place, speaking out on drug use and encouraging better policies - and funding - for prisons, he said.
"If you want that system to work, you have to give it the necessary resources," La Serna said.