Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fixing the Jails

I have a new piece up at InSight that runs down some of the problems in Mexico's prisons, and offers some potential fixes. Highlights:

Geographical targeting -- Given the fact that most of the recent escapes and violence have taken place in the north and northeast of the country, the authorities might consider shifting resources toward prisons in Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and other northern states. More could be done to separate rival gangs; in the case of Apodaca, federal officials could send the Zetas south, to prison facilities far from their stomping grounds. Moving prisoners in this way would be a costly logistical nightmare, but it could defuse the tensions that often spill over into mass violence.

Army patrols -- In 2010 Malcolm Beith, the author of "The Last Narco" and an InSight Crime contributor, suggested that the military, which is widely perceived to be less corrupt than the prison guards, be given a greater role in preventing escapes. According to Beith, this wouldn't require any big change to the military’s mission; a “few humvees and well-armed soldiers” patrolling the streets around a jail would discourage inmates from trying their luck in an escape.

Institutional improvement·-- Ultimately, however, none of these proposals would have much impact without a more trustworthy group of prison guards controlling the nation’s prisons. As with any of the proposed institutional fixes for Mexico’s security agencies, carrying out real reform to this vast bureaucracy will be an exceedingly difficult task.

Mexico’s decades-long improvement of its police agencies offers some lessons, despite its problems. One is that the mere creation of a new agency -- through, for instance, centralizing all of the nation’s prisons under federal control -- does not amount to a step forward. To actually change the incentives of the guards working in Mexico’s prisons, a raft of other measures must be implemented in tandem, from greater vetting and ongoing polygraph testing to transferring guards under threat from inmates and offering higher salaries.

Perhaps the most important element in all this is patience, because the challenge of reforming Mexico's prisons is enormous.

Also, check out this piece from Edward Fox about efforts to create a citizen militia to crack down on border violence in Arizona:
If signed into law, the unit would be comprised of 300 volunteers who will receive 40 hours of police training, learning how to pursue, detain and arrest suspects. In theory, each volunteer will have to go through a vetting process.

Two elements immediately stand out that would make the proposed unit unique. First, though there are currently 23 other states in the US with active guard units, the Arizona unit would be the only one with a primary focus on international crime, according to the Associated Press. Secondly, existing guard units in the US typically fall under the command of the National Guard; in Arizona, however, it appears as if the unit would be to some extent self-governing.

This move to disregard the norms of voluntary border patrol units raises a question -- why do Arizona officials deem it necessary to arm a voluntary militia with seemingly unilateral powers?

The Republican governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, has so far refrained from commenting on the bill. However, her fellow party members have come out as some of its biggest proponents, arguing that it is necessary in the face of incursions by Mexican cartels into Arizona. As Sylvia Allen, a Republican Senator from Snowflake, AZ, stated, "Something has to be done about the situation at the border -- people are being terrorized." In a separate commentary she added, “We are being invaded by criminals who have formed alliances with mid-eastern terrorists to use violence in the most evil of ways to intimidate, control and protect their drug, human smuggling, multi-billion dollar business.”


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