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Implementing Prison Reform in Panama


The overall objective of this project is to develop a comprehensive prison reform strategy that addresses prison overcrowding, the large population of people in custody, the lack of staff training, and human rights violations.

The project is carried out in accordance with the action plan defined by the Panamanian Government. This plan has been developed on the basis of the four areas of focus for reform: infrastructure, personnel, safety and rehabilitation programmes.

Through this initiative, and in an effort to support the Government of Panama in the implementation of reforms, UNODC ROPAN offers assistance and direct technical expertise, as well as financial support, to the Ministry of Government and the prison system.

Implementation is based on a programmatic approach divided into two phases. The first phase lasted 20 months (October 2010 - July 2012) which contributed to the design and implementation of a strategic plan for prison reform and strengthening the capacity of staff for better management of the prison system in accordance with the applicable international standards. The second phase, with a duration of 18 months (August 2012 - January 2014), seeks to mould these objectives into more specific areas (academia, women, education, productivity and labour) that help to ensure a sustainable and lasting reform of the criminal justice system.

In this context, a roadmap for the implementation of prison reform in Panama (also known as the strategic plan "For a Second Chance") was developed. It was agreed to and approved by the Ministry of Government and 70 % has been implemented to date. The project has supported the Panamanian Government in achieving a number of positive results in the process of prison reform. In this sense, and despite the increase in the prison population, it can be concluded that, as a result of various measures taken by the Government of Panama with the support of UNODC ROPAN, prison density has decreased.

The Panamanian Government continues to progress in this field and a project which would allow for the construction of new prisons in Panama City and the Province of Chiriqui, with capacities for 5500 and 1200 persons deprived of liberty respectively. This increased capacity will have a direct impact on the reduction of prison density in Panama. During the construction process, UNODC will support the Government of Panama with technical assistance in a joint effort to ensure that new facilities meet the relevant international standards and norms.

Furthermore, recognizing the importance of the role of prison staff to ensure the daily safety and management of prisons, the Government of Panama has diligently promoted simultaneous and continuous training of staff of the Prison System. Staff members have become active participants in knowledge networks and peer support forums on prison reform. Similarly, a number of support programmes focused on reducing the prison population have been implemented. In an effort to consolidate and strengthen the capacity building of personnel within the prison system, the Panamanian Government managed to reopen the Prison Training Academy in January 2011, leading to the Academy becoming instrumental in the process of reforming the Panamanian prison system.

  • The Prison Academy boasts a set of rules, an updated curriculum, equipment, furniture and literature that allow for the training of 260 students, who are taught by highly motivated teachers.
  • The Academy has updated its study plans based on an academic curriculum for basic courses, induction courses for administrative staff, refresher courses, as well as classroom and virtual courses for executives.
  • To date, 570 new Prisons Custodians were trained, having previously met the entry requirements and test final competition. This staff was assigned to various prisons in the country to replace national police officers who previously covered internal security.
  • 2,400 academic interventions were performed during the three years of management of the Penitentiary Training Academy, in training and updating on prison material in the various fields.
  • In the last quarter of 2013 the Academy has focused on conducting a nationwide call to evaluate, select and train prison staff both administrative and security, who will initiate work in the Nueva Joya Facilities.
  • The academy was approved for salary increases for prison staff, from U.S. $ 450 to U.S. $ 690 monthly salary basis , making it a competitive compensation in the domestic labor market .

Six consultations were conducted with objective of assessing priority areas for the Ministry of Government, such as health, alternatives to incarceration, the design of an organizational structure, an operational plan and a curriculum for the Prison Training Academy, and the establishment of a data Management System.

As a result of these consultations, training, mentoring and study visits attended by the directors of prisons, department heads and other officials the Panamanian prison system, it is important to note that:

  • 100% of the directors of prisons increased their management and leadership skills and now manage the centres according to international standards 
  • 50 correctional officers made ​​ten-day study visits to the Dominican Republic (New Model Prison Management) . All directors and department heads obtained a certificate of performance and on his return, presented a work plan to the authorities, which is being implemented.
  • 100% of the prisons implemented good practices learned during study visits and exchanges nationwide.
  • With project financing, additional technical staff was hired to update assessments and contract consulting and tutoring in various subjects. These inputs were of great importance and technical quality and helped to strengthen the capacity of the Directorate General of Prisons to increase and improve social reintegration programmes.
  • 26% of the detainees are developing educational, employment and/or production activities. Among the factors that contributed to the increase in the number of people participating in activities,the strengthening strategic alliances with non-governmental and international organizations is highlighted, having increased the number of teachers and resources for training and education that are provided in prisons.
  • Between 2010 and October 2013, an increase of 11 % of detainees participating in educational programmes has been registered, whilethere has been an 8% increase for detainees participating in work programmes .
  • As an unprecedented event in the region, the First Schedule Programme at the University of Panama was inducted into the Women's Rehabilitation Centre with three technical careers, with the support of UNODC. This experience will be replicated in other prisons.
  • In 2011, the "Donate a Book to Jail" campaign was launched. To date, more than 8000 books have been donated, enabling libraries to be opened in prison centres of Las Tablas, La Joyita and La Joya, the latter with a study hall and computer training.
  • With the financial and technical support of UNODC, new production projects such as Hydroponics and Tailoring (CEFERES and JEWEL) have been created. Four new classrooms for computer training (en El Renacer Penitentiary,  La Joya Prison, Female Centre Penitentiary in Panama and Public Prison of La Chorrera) were also equipped.
  • 90% of the prisons have a regimental daily schedule supported by a daily plan for activities, be they artistic, sporting and cultural, educational, amongst others.
  • 12 new awareness programmes are currently being developed specialized in: drug addiction, social skills and sexual offenders and crime prevention. To implement these programs, and as part of the project, various exchanges and specialized trainings were conducted .
  • With increase financial support to the project allowing for the creation of adequate space, family visits (visits with children) were allowed 2 to 4 times a year and intimate visits including women deprived of freedom.

Other major achievements of the reform project undertaken by the Government of Panama with technical assistance from UNODC , we can mention the following:

  • A Care Programme for women deprived of liberty was initiated in September 2012, an inter-agency initiative with the aim of creating a space for participation and joint construction between the institutions linked to the problems of women deprived of liberty to improve the conditions of detention of these women in line with national and international regulations .
  • Prison security personnel has been supported with the provision of new uniforms and safety equipment and protection, and training has also been provided in these areas through study visits and internships in other countries in the region.
  • In 2011, the "Stop Corruption" campaign was developed and institutionalized, through which 311 allegations of corruption have been made, recognizing the rapid response to complaints and reports submitted.
  • In 2012, with the assistance of UNODC and the  Regional Anti-Corruption Academy for Central America and the Caribbean (ARAC), the Code of Ethics for corrections officers was designed and adopted.
  • With the support of the project, informational materials were developed, published and distributed to the prison population, placing fact sheets on the requirements and procedures of the most popular themes for the prison population, such as as probation, disciplinary procedures, rights and obligations, and commutation of sentences, in the common areas of each penal center of the country.
  • At the request of the Penitentiary System, UNODC has prepared several  technical advisory opinions on the following issues: corruption in prisons, using everyday clothing for the prison population, the right to participation of the prison population, challenges facing persons deprived of freedom of foreign origin, commutation and intimate visits of the prison population, among others. 
  • With the support of UNODC, the website of the  Penitentiary System of Panama has been improved.

It is noteworthy to mention that project activities are carried out in coordination with UNODC's Latin American Institute and the Center of Excellence for Prison Reform (ILANUD). Through this project, ROPAN also coordinates efforts with other agencies of the United Nations, the OAS, NGOs and independent experts.

Each activity undertaken by the project is subject to a detailed report, and surveys that are designed to allow the involved parties to measure the impact and usefulness of each particular activity, and to determine aspects that should be improved logistically. After each study visit, meetings are held to share the experiences and workshops in which stakeholders and partners involved allow for the presentation of project reports. Similarly, project donors will be forwarded monthly reports of activities carried out under the project.


Youtube: Implementing Prison Reform in Panama


In response to the commitment and willingness of the Panamanian State, UNODC has been implementing the project 'Supporting prison reform in Panama' since October 2010. The project's main objectives are: to develop a comprehensive reform strategy aimed at the humanization of prison conditions and the professionalization of prison staff; and to contribute to the achievement of Panama's goal of having a modern, effective and efficient prison service in line with international standards.

This video highlights the achievements made by the Panamanian Prison System through the technical and financial support of this project implemented by the UNODC Regional Office for Central America and the Caribbean in Panama (UNODC ROPAN).



Implementing Prison Reform in Panama

The objective of the project is to develop an overall prison reform strategy that will address prison overcrowding, the large population of remanded prisoners, and the resulting human rights violations.

The specific objectives of the project are :

1. Developing a strategic plan for prison reform in Panama

2. Building capacity in the prison service

These objectives are to be achieved through the development of a strategic plan for prison reform in Panama and building capacity in the Prison Service.

PANX12 is carried out in accordance with the plan of action defined by the Panamanian Government that has been elaborated based on the four areas targeted for reform: infrastructure, personnel, security, and rehabilitation programs. Through PANX12, UNODC ROPAN provides direct technical and expert advice and financial support to the Ministry of the Government and the Penitentiary System so as to assist and support the Government in the implementation of the various reforms.

A roadmap for the implementation of prison reform in Panama (also known as the plan "For a second opportunity") has also been created, agreed to and approved by the Ministry of Government, and 70% has so far been implemented. To date the project has been able to assist the Panamanian Government in achieving a range of positive results in the process of prison reform. Despite an increased penitentiary population, the population density has been decreased as a result of various measures implemented by the government with the support of UNODC ROPAN.

The Panamanian Government continues to make various strides in this area and has forecasted a prison construction project will see the construction of new prisons in Panama City and Chiriquí with capacities of 5500 and 1000 respectively. This increase in penitentiary capacity will allow for further deduction in the population density within Panama's prisons. During this process of construction, UNODC will lend technical and advisory support to the Panamanian Government in a joint effort to ensure that the new facilities fall in line with international standards and norms for penitentiaries. Further results that have contributed to the reduction in penitentiary density include the following:

ü The number of persons to whom probation has been granted by the Executive has doubled. 628 persons received probation in 2010, and 1100 were given in 2012.

ü The number of prisoners who redeem penalty by work and study has been increased: 638 people in 2010, 718 in 2011, and 282 by April 2012.

ü 42% of the prison population is classified and therefore, granted access to prison privileges.

ü 10 of 15 prisons have integrated Technical Boards, and the remaining 5 prisons are currently in the integration process.

ü Additional space for 1500 prisoners, that meets international standards, has been inaugurated.

ü Greater coordination between the Penitentiary System, Judiciary and Prosecutors has been achieved.

Recognizing the important role played by penitentiary staff in ensuring security and managing the prisons on a daily basis, the Government has diligently pursued the simultaneous training of personnel within the prison system. Personnel have become active in knowledge networks and peer support forums on prison reform, and a number of programmes that support a reduction in the prison populations have been implemented. In an effort to consolidate the strengthening and increasing of the staff capacity within the penitentiary system, the Panamanian Government also pursued the reopening of the penitentiary Academy which took place in January 2011. The reopening of the Academy was significant in the process of Panamanian prison reform.

ü The Penitentiary Academy can boast norms and an updated curriculum, equipment, furniture and bibliography that allow for the training of 260 students simultaneously by highly motivated trainers.

ü After meeting admission requirements and passing the final proficiency test, 490 prison officers, who were trained for three months, have graduated from the Academy since February 2011, and have already been assigned to roles in various prisons throughout the country replacing the national police in those roles.

ü 1138 prison officials have expanded their knowledge and skills through several trainings on prisons matters: 740 in 2011 and 398 in 2012. This constitutes 61% in 2011 and 35% in 2012 of the total staff in the Penitentiary System.

ü About 35 trainers have been trained through one or more study visits and training courses, and they have in turn trained, 1188 prison officers as a follow up to their experiences. Some of them have been trained more than once.

ü 600 prison officers have received a kit of prison training materials (For example: compendium of prison norms, prison handbooks, etc). Training courses for penitentiary officers on Security and Rehabilitation (AVIR in Spanish), includes 300 hours of mandatory reading and 30 hours of courses which allow for the updating of knowledge.

ü Training and "Training of Trainers" is provided by UNODC ROPAN, using modules which have been developed specifically for Panama.

As a result of the range of workshops, mentorships and study visits in which all prison managers and department heads of the Penitentiary System of Panama have participated, it can be noted that:

ü 100% of prison managers have increased their management and leadership skills within the context of international standards.

ü 50 prison officials participated in 10 day study visits to the Dominican Republic (New Management Model Prison). Each participant obtained a performance certificate and submitted a work plan was elaborated and submitted authorities upon their return and subsequently put in to practice.

ü There has been an increase in the number of detainees involved in rehabilitation programs.

ü Increased number of family visits (visits with children), 2 to 4 times a year, and intimate visits including women prisoners are promoted.

ü 90% of the prisons have a regimental schedule supported by a daily schedule of activities.

ü Two posters, one for the campaign to prevent Corruption and the other for the campaign 'Give a Book to Jail' to collect books for prisons, were prepared and printed to be placed in several offices of the Penitentiary System. 5.768 books were collected to equip libraries in prisons in the framework of the Public Campaign that began in March 2012.

ü 100% of prisons are implementing the best practices learned during the study visits as well as the best practices of national prison centres which were exchanged at the workshops held around the country.

ü Seven prisons have special care programmes for detainees with additions to drugs, sex offenders and social skills development, which will be progressively replicated throughout the country.

ü The project has also provided support in the elaboration of a draft Code of Ethics for penitentiary officers based on the document prepared by the Council of Europe.

Six consultancies have also been conducted to assess the main issues of concern to the Ministry of Government such as health, alternatives to imprisonment, design of the organizational structure, operational plan and the curriculum of the Penitentiary Academy, elaboration of the Data Management System, among others. In addition, a Grant Agreement with the Latin American Institute of the United Nations for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (ILANUD according to its acronym in Spanish), has been executed during the first phase to develop a comprehensive plan for penitentiary training.

It is important to mention that activities under the project are conducted in coordination with ILANUD and the Centre of Excellence on Prison Reform and Drug Demand Reduction in the Dominican Republic. Through this programme, ROPAN also works closely with other UN agencies, the OAS, NGOs and independent experts. Furthermore, various activities are coordinated with yet another ROPAN initiative, " Increasing the Capacity for Prison Reform through Alternatives to Imprisonment", which focuses on the Telematic Tracking System using the electronic monitoring bracelet .

Every activity undertaken by the programme is subject to a detailed report, and surveys have been designed to allow the parties involved to measure the impact and utility of the particular activity, as well as to determine the aspects that must be logistically improved. After each study visit, a meeting to share experiences is held, and reports/consultations are presented in a workshop attended by all stakeholders. In addition, activity reports are sent to donors on a monthly basis.


The general objective of the second phase of this project, which was initiated in July 2012, is to continue the prison reform strategy initiated by Panamanian authorities, who will seek humanization of prison conditions and professionalization of prison staff.

While maintaining the same methodological approach, the second phase of the project will focus on the following three specific objectives:

  1. Provide support to the operation of the Prison Training Academy.

a) Acquisition of technological equipment, furniture and library materials that will contribute to staff training.

b) Training teachers in the Penitentiary Academy.

c) Create and implement an evaluation and performance system.

d) Increased participation in study and training courses both nationally and internationally.

  1. Improving confinement conditions of women deprived from liberty.

a. Design of a programme for women deprived of liberty to allow them greater opportunities to seek social reintegration while taking gender particularities into account

b. Design of protocols and regulations for women's prisons that address the specifics of the female prison population.

c. Training of staff in the use of these protocols and regulations to ensure enhanced gender awareness.

  1. Strengthen the educational, labour and production activities of persons deprived of liberty

a. Diagnosis of the current situation in education, employment and production matters in prisons.

b. Proposal of operational and functional restructuring of the Directorate of the Penitentiary System for a better implementation of educational, employment and training programmes.

c. Proposal for education, work and training programs for persons deprived of liberty.