Penal system of Panama
Article 27 of the Panamanian constitution declares that the prison system of Panama is based on the principles of security, rehabilitation, and the protection of society. Provisions have been made to establish training programs designed to teach skills and trades that will afford prisoners the opportunity of reentering society as useful citizens after they complete their sentence. The same article also prohibits physical, mental, and moral abuse of prisoners. Juvenile offenders who are sentenced by a court are cared for in a special system that provides protection and education and attempted to rehabilitate minors before they came of age. Women are also segregated in the penal system.
The Department of Corrections was established in 1940 to administer the country's penal system for the Ministry of Government and Justice. Operation of the prisons had previously been a direct function of the National Police. The intention of the government officials who established the Department of Corrections was to end the inherent abuses in the system, but the new department was never properly staffed, and police had to be used as jailers. The same situation continued in the mid-1980s; because of understaffing in the Department of Corrections, most jails were staffed by members of the Defense Forces, and the prison system was still considered an entity of the FDP. Other abuses apparently also continued. Major complaints expressed about the penal system concerned overcrowding, poor sanitation facilities, and lack of adequate medical attention.
The Isla de Coiba has been the site of the Coiba Penal Colony, Panama's most severe prison, since 1919. Although most of its prisoners are sentenced by courts to specified terms, sometimes persons were sent to Coiba while awaiting the results of pretrial investigation or awaiting sentencing, a violation of judicial regulations, if, as indicated in the criminal code, Coiba was the most severe regime in the prison system. The prisoners are housed in a main camp and in several small camps scattered about the island, but there is no indication that pretrial detainees were segregated from prisoners serving sentences. In the main camp, there are some facilities for rehabilitation training and a small school; however, many of the inmates have little or no access to those facilities because they live some distance from the main camp. Work is required of all prisoners including those awaiting trial or awaiting sentencing. Labor is unremunerated for the majority of prisoners, most of whom are engaged in farming and animal husbandry in areas that they or former prisoners had cleared of jungle growth. Some mechanics and other skilled craftsmen receive small wages for their labor.
Another major prison, the Model Jail (Cárcel Modelo) in Panama City, was built in 1920; over the years, however, it acquired a reputation that belied its name. Its biggest problem, one not unique to the Model Jail or to Panama, was overcrowding. Cells intended to house three inmates were frequently found to have as many as fifteen; this severe overcrowding may have accounted for the large number of pretrial detainees that were sent to Coiba. First offenders confined to the Model Jail were not always segregated from hardened criminals, a pattern that prevailed throughout most of the prison system. Prisoners awaiting trial were often confined for extended periods before their cases appeared on a court docket, and there were complaints that rights to habeas corpus had been violated by holding some offenders incommunicado.
In contrast to the conditions under which male prisoners serve sentences and await trial, women receive much better care. The Women's Rehabilitation Center (Centro Feminino de Rehabilitación) in Panama City appears to be an ideal prison. The center is under the supervision of the Department of Corrections, as are all prisons in Panama, but it is operated by nuns who have established a reputation for discipline tempered by humaneness and decency. Few complaints are reported from prisoners at the women's center. When first arrested, however, women are sometimes held overnight or for several nights at the Model Jail where, even though segregated, women experience conditions that differ little from those described for men.