Bolivia: Mass Prisoner Pardon to Relieve Overcrowding

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

On Christmas Eve, Bolivian President Evo Morales pardoned 1,800 prisoners held in facilities across the country—part of his ongoing effort to curtail overcrowding in the Andean nation’s penal system.

“The present decree’s aim is to give amnesty and total or partial pardons to people who have been deprived of their liberty,” Morales told a news conference in the central region of Cochabamba. 

Those pardoned include inmates with sentences of less than five years, one-time offenders, prisoners under the age of 28, single mothers with children (generally incarcerated along with them), prisoners with terminal illnesses and some with disabilities. Since those convicted of violent crimes and trafficking were excluded, the majority were almost certainly low-level drug offenders. This is the fourth time Morales has decreed such mass pardons.  

It is estimated that 15,000 individuals remain incarcerated in Bolivia, with a population of 10 million. And a third of these have not actually been sentenced.  

A November report by the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network warned that prison overcrowding was at critical levels in Bolivia. The prison system had well surpassed 250 percent of total capacity, the report warned. It found that Bolivia has the fifth worst over-crowding situation in Latin America after Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela.

Much of the blame is placed with Bolivia’s widespread use of pre-trial detention—the country has Latin America’s second-highest rate of this practice after El Salvador. Bolivia’s prison population has nearly doubled since 2008—with some some 20 percent of those incarcerated during this period having been convicted on drug-related charges. 

While the pardons are an encouraging step, the problems they are meant to address are deeply entrenched across the region. Such factors have led to a growing wave of prison violence throughout Latin America.

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