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The Penitentiary System in the Republic of Panama

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The administration of President Ricardo Martinelli, sworn into office on 1 July 2009, has committed to a series of reforms that aim to rebuild trust in the justice, prison and police systems; improve human security; and create a justice system that can stand as a flagship in the region while meeting international standards and promoting best practices.

The prison situation in Panama has been characterized by a high rate of incarceration (400 prisoners each 100,000 inhabitants, as well as a high overcrowding rate), a high rate of remand prisoners (70%) and poor prison conditions. This combination of factors results in the main problem of a lack of access to rehabilitation programmes that promote prisoners' reintegration into society.

The situation is further worsened by a shortage of prison staff, a lack of training programmes, and inadequate administrative management of prisons.

The UNODC has a clear mandate in the area of criminal justice reform in the context of providing technical assistance, including that which relates to the effective and appropriate management of prisons, by assisting Member States in applying the UN Standards and Norms in Criminal Justice and, more specifically, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. In this context, prison reform in Panama is designed based on a "humanitarian model" that is based on international and regional standards intended to provide the inmate population with the tools needed to take on the challenge of reintegrating into society. The adopted strategy has also been based on the United Nations model of rights and obligations.

The UNODC experience in other countries has shown that unless the problem of prison overcrowding is effectively addressed, any other prison reform activities will produce negligible results. This concept, therefore, remains the cornerstone of UNODC ROPAN's strategic approach. Accordingly, the programmes implemented to combat this problem undertake an integrated but phased approach that involve interventions at a variety of levels, which combine to contribute to achieving the Panamanian Government's goal of having a modern, effective and efficient prison service that meets international standards for health, safety and conduct, and not only seeks to ensure that the capacity of the country to adopt the programmes is not overburdened, but also that the overall prison reform strategy is sustainable, fully owned by the national counterparts. The afore mentioned interventions were determined to be areas of high priority, and necessary for the achievement of a comprehensive approach in laying the necessary groundwork to prison reform, as well as in providing concrete results, fostering trust and cooperation through consensus building, and providing momentum for future reforms.