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The rebirth of the prison in Latin America: determinants, regimes and social effects


Throughout the last three decades, almost all Latin American countries witnessed a dramatic growth of their inmate population that is indicative of the rebirth of the prison in the region. This article contextualizes the rebirth of the prison in contemporary Latin America in empirical and theoretical terms. To this end, it offers a discussion of the expansion of Latin American imprisonment, changes in the region’s prison regimes and their embeddedness within wider social and economic contexts, as well as of the impact of institutional histories, larger economic and political transformation processes and globally circulating penal ideas and institutional models, all of which contribute to the growing punitiveness of contemporary Latin America states and politics.

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  1. 1.

    For Tonry, changes toward greater punitiveness can be measured in policies, (capital punishment, mandatory minimums, juvenile waiver), practices (use of waivers and changes in adult and juvenile prison admissions) and outcomes (prison population and admission rates as well as sentences length), along with procedural protections (2007:14) We concentrate, for reasons of space, on incarceration rates.

  2. 2.

    Penal state building and democratization need to be placed within the context of the militarization and later relative de-militarization of penal control that took place in most countries of the region in the last four decades. For a comparative study of Argentina and Chile, from this perspective, see [49].

  3. 3.

    In that respect, we observe imprisonment increasing in the last two decades in cases of increase in homicide rates (Chile, mildly, Venezuela, doubling), decreases (Mexico, Colombia) or stability (Argentina and Brazil) ([38]: 42–43). Similarly, imprisonment has increased both where inequality increased (Argentina during the 1990s) and where it decreased (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela, during the 2000s), while imprisonment rates vary dramatically across countries with similar levels of GINI coefficients ([38]:41) Moreover, all cases underwent rapid social and economic change with structural adjustments in the economy and the polarizing, flexibilization and impoverishment effects (Chile, since 1975, and Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico Peru and Venezuela, since the early or mid-1990s), followed by differently radical turns to the left in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela in the 2000s, all the while imprisonment rates continued growing.


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Hathazy, P., Müller, MM. The rebirth of the prison in Latin America: determinants, regimes and social effects. Crime Law Soc Change 65, 113–135 (2016).

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  • Organize Crime
  • Party System
  • Prison System
  • Prison Life
  • Latin American State