Deaths in Pergamino police station are the responsibility of provincial state

Seven people detained in a Pergamino police station died in a fire. After the Verbitsky ruling, in which confinement in police facilities was deemed unconstitutional, the number of people held in such establishments went down to 600. Today it is at 3017.

Yesterday afternoon, seven people in custody in the Province of Buenos Aires were burned to death in a fire. Sergio Filiberto, Federico Perrotta, Alan Córdoba, Franco Pizarro, Jhon Mario Carlos, Juan Carlos Cabrera and Fernando Emanuel Latorre were jailed at a police station in Pergamino, where they died in a fire. According to the initial versions, they died due to absolute state negligence in a situation of violence, trapped in a place with no escape, without help or any contingency plan that could have protected the detainees in this type of emergency.

What happened is no mere accident. It is the direct and utterly foreseeable consequence of a criminal and security policy focused on incarceration, which puts pressure on a prison system that is in chronic crisis due to overcrowding and violence. For instance, there were people being held in that station for minor crimes the likes of attempted aggravated theft, aggravated injury, willful injury or concealment.

Holding prisoners in police jails is prohibited since the 2005 Supreme Court ruling in Verbitsky that declared confinement in these facilities to be unconstitutional, because they cannot guarantee decent conditions of detention. It also established that the abusive use of pretrial detention should be reviewed.

After that decision and a long implementation process, the number of people held in police facilities fell to 600. Just a few years later, the toughening of criminal policy in the province of Buenos Aires led to another increase and the trend shifted. Pressure on the criminal system has caused an increase in the incarceration rate and this has inevitably led to more people being permanently jailed in police stations.

In the past year, overcrowding has gotten worse. Between December 2015 and March 2017, the incarceration rate has increased by 13 points: it went from 210 to 223 detainees for every 100,000 inhabitants. Today, according to SPB (Buenos Aires Provincial Penitentiary System) statistics, the population behind bars in the province is 38,089 persons. Between December 2015 and February 2017, the number of detainees grew by 3,000. The penitentiary system cannot accommodate this increase, the result being overcrowding, inhuman treatment and human rights violations in places of provincial detention.

In the case of police jails, in December 2015 there were 1,836 persons in detention; now there are 3,014. According to official data, there are 1,105 cots. In other words, today in the province there is a 172.8% over-capacity jailed in places where no one should be held. Despite the penitentiary emergency declared by the executive branch, no progress has been made on a plan to empty police stations of prisoners. On the contrary, it plans to renovate them or find other places to house prisoners who exceed the capacity of penitentiary units.

The solution lies in a shift in policy orientation, not in the construction of more detention sites, because, as the Supreme Court said in 2005, “there is a race on between the Administration, that increases the number of available cells, and the rising number of prisoners, without any near-future prospects of those curves intersecting. This prevents the cessation of fundamental rights violations, in particular, the right to life and personal integrity of prisoners, of prison personnel and third parties.

In the 2016-2026 Executive Summary of its Strategic Plan, the government acknowledged that “the province of Buenos Aires receives annually around 2,200 inmates, while the turnover rate is around 600. This, in addition to the high incarceration rate (above the national average), will make the situation worse in the future.” This observation is in total contradiction to policies whose impact is a significant increase in detentions and the incarceration rate.

Yesterday’s deaths are the consequence of this scenario, and responsibility lies with the three branches of State in the province as they toughen the criminal system, do not adequately oversee what goes on in the penitentiary system and police stations, and fail to protect the most basic rights of the persons in their care.

The public prosecutor’s office must now swiftly and earnestly investigate the events to prevent this dire scenario from being further compounded by impunity for the perpetrators. Eleven years ago on October 12, 2005, the SPB’s repression of a protest and the fire that broke out in Magdalena Prison’s Building 16, Unit 28 caused the deaths of 33 people when penitentiary guards failed to open the doors. This August, 15 SPB agents are just now going on trial for desertion of prisoners resulting in death, and two unit chiefs for manslaughter of the inmates. The families of the 33 dead are still waiting to see justice done.

It is also time for the province of Buenos Aires to discuss an overpopulation control law to reverse this humanitarian crisis in provincial prisons and police jails.