The Agonizing Prison System in Ecuador

Alejandra Palacios Jaramillo
Source: Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

The past three years have been catastrophic for the Ecuadorian prison system. Multiple massacres marked new records for inmates’ deaths in the country’s history. The Penitenciaria del Litoral facility witnessed the killings of more than 200 prisoners between February and November 2021. These events were especially concerning because of the methods used, which have guided multiple theories regarding what motivated the massacres.

However, these are by no means isolated incidents. Violence inside correctional institutions in the country has been occurring since their conception. The reality inside these facilities can be attributed to many factors, including issues in and outside the prison and the State’s role. In fact, the recent spike in altercations is only an additional visible sign of an agonizing system. 

Certainly, the recent massacres caught people’s attention due to their sadistic nature and the media coverage they received. This led to the development of hypotheses, some better founded than others, that sought to explain the rise in violence. For the government, the crisis is a consequence of the changing power dynamics between criminal gangs as they struggle to find a new “mega-leader” after the death of Los Choneros’ ringleader in 2020. Others argue the massacres are a reflection of the out-of-prison dynamics between drug trafficking gangs. Some have even argued they were part of satanic rituals. Nevertheless, none of these suppositions can, by themselves, explain the issue in its full magnitude. 


Police take control of a detention facility after a gunfight. Source: BBC

It is evident that the State’s actions, or lack thereof, have been a contributing factor of major importance. In fact, the Committee Against Torture’s (CAT) most recent observations highlight the many shortcomings in the correctional system. It also calls attention to areas in which the State’s intervention has been deficient. Among other factors, some of the most concerning aspects of the report revolve around living conditions, interactions with visitors, and corruption. 

In fact, the CAT in its List of Issues already required the State to explain its policies regarding prison overpopulation, inmates’ access to healthcare, the frequency of violent altercations, and the number of deaths in custody. According to the inquiry, inmates live in constantly deteriorating conditions with limited access to appropriate medication, healthcare, and personal space. Other reports highlight the terrible quality of food and the very limited access to social rehabilitation services.

In addition, civil society organizations have raised their concerns regarding the barriers established for communication between inmates and their families. For starters, the right to maintain communication and have visitors seems to be more of a privilege in reality. Issues such as the remote location and the ever-changing conditions to enter the facilities as visitors, serve as a deterrent; especially for family members who live in poverty. In fact, stories from those who make it inside include testimonies of having to pay for getting someone to watch their belongings, transport them and even enter the prisons. Many have also been subjected to humiliating and invasive searches, including strip searches for women in front of other individuals and even their own children. 


Inmates of the Penitenciaria de Guayaquil hold banners during a riot. Source: Reuters

The most common practice of all is charging visitors or inmates for “turning a blind eye” when forbidden items, such as weapons, drugs, and cellphones, enter the facilities. That is why not even full-body scans have been able to restrict the entrance of prohibited objects. Indeed, in 2014, more than 100 prison guards were sanctioned administratively for engaging in illegal activities. However, it is unclear whether these were proportional to their actions and would effectively deter them from relapsing. 

Considering all these factors, it is evident that the State’s policies, reforms, and decisions have been a catalyst for prison violence in Ecuador. Nonetheless, one must not forget that the issue of prison violence does not respond to a unique cause. Rather, it is a combination of factors that have, and continue to, force the system to its breaking point.

It is no secret that Ecuador has seen a change in the dynamics inside prison facilities in the past ten years. Some might say it is the harsh living conditions that drive people to crime. Others might blame it on the changes to the judicial system and the typification of unlawful activities. Either way, it is of the utmost importance to understand the evolving role that Ecuador’s geographic, and other conditions, play in the internationally organized business of drug trafficking.

In fact, the country has moved on from being considered only a transport location to playing an active role in international drug trafficking. Indeed, activities such as consumption, production, and money laundering, have permeated the country and allowed illegal funds and gang ring leaders and members to be dangerously involved in judicial proceedings, political campaign funding, and other political and economic activities. It is evident that the more power drug trafficking, and its consequences, have in Ecuador have affected not only the everyday life of citizens but also the reality inside correctional facilities, which are nothing else but a representation of what goes on outside them.

  • Could prison privatization alleviate prison violence?
  • Are prisons a reflection of what happens outside facilities?
  • Are prison policy and management reforms enough to direct the day-to-day interactions inside facilities?

Suggested Readings

Concluding observations on the seventh periodic report of Ecuador from the Committee Against Torture

Ecuador’s report submitted to the Committee Against Torture

UN News: Ecuador: Latest prison riot highlights need for criminal justice reform

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The Agonizing Prison Syst…

by Alejandra Palacios Jaramillo time to read: 4 min