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Deadly Chile prison fire puts heat on Latin America's crowded jails

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Many critics say prison conditions are a time bomb in Latin America, with space growing tighter as prison populations grow, leaving fewer guards to organize systems inside. Drug laws and the use of preventive jail, they say, have also exacerbated the problem. The tragedy in Chile has leaders and human rights organizations calling for immediate reform, while casting a spotlight on subpar conditions across the region.

“The fire was just the visualization of an endemic problem that hasn’t been looked at. It hadn’t been sufficiently detected and denounced,” says Chilean national public defender Paula Vial.

Overcrowded prisons

The debate over prison reform in Chile comes as the Transnational Institute and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) released a report on overcrowding in prisons in eight Latin American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. The report argues that one contributing factor to crowded conditions is drug policy, which punishes low-level traffickers while doing little to stem drug use or trafficking.

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