e) Testimony of Juan Antonio de la Vega Elorza, Jesuit priest and attorney The witness is currently chaplain at the Tacumbú National Penitentiary in Asunción. His concern is the spiritual life of the inmates, legal aid and their care.
The building that housed the Center was a small, unfinished residence originally intended for a police chief who headed a specialized arm of the police force. The authorities’ explanation for the fact that the Center was in a building intended as a residence was to claim that it was just a temporary measure, until another, somewhat larger place could be found, one better suited to the inmates’ rehabilitation. The Center was in no way equipped for the rehabilitation of inmates. The young inmates had no place to go to relieve tension. All they had was a patio, so that they had to take turns playing sports. There were times when they were in lockdown for days, and were not allowed out at all, not even to walk in the patio. This is a violation of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The Center had neither physicians nor medications.
There was no standard for classifying inmates by age, or by convicted versus those awaiting or standing trial. Moreover, even though the law prescribes it, as a rule the inmates were never given medical, dental or psychological evaluations when they entered the facility. What few bathrooms there were at the Center were in terrible condition. The smell was extremely unpleasant because they did not have soap with which to bathe, the water was cold and they had no towels. Inmates did not have individual cells. The only “individual cell” –and even it wasn’t an individual cell- was the punishment cell, which was “a prison inside a prison, a horrible, frightening place.” He saw the punishment cell, which was in a basement. There, the inmates spent the entire day in darkness. In fact, one “Justice of the Court” ordered that the cell be shut down. However, the following day it was open again. There were rooms were 30 or 40 boys slept on bunk beds or on the floor. Because they were adolescents, at the peak of their sexuality, “the one who paid dearest was the youngest and the smallest”, as he was considered “a slave who had to submit to the one who chose him.” “It was heartbreaking to watch little children cry from the pain of having been raped three or four times the night before.” These violated children need psychological and psychiatric treatment to survive the trauma. The guards withdraw from the cellblocks at night, and one can do “whatever one wants” with complete impunity in these unguarded cellblocks.
It is difficult for inmates to report any situation. There is a “rule of silence”: no one sees or hears anything; otherwise, they know they will be punished. The witness has seen and has heard from the inmates that the prison guards torture and abuse the inmates. Still, the inmates don’t want to name names.
The guards sold drugs to the youth in the Center. The image of the guards is very bad; these are people who couldn’t find a job elsewhere. Most have not even completed their elementary education. They think that in order to win respect, they have to administered discipline by “the stick, nothing else.”
The detention conditions at the Center were an indignity and utterly deplorable. “We are teaching them how to use their freedom, yet we put them in a place where freedom is not exercised at all; we are supposed to be educating them to be useful citizens tomorrow, yet we are allowing them to remain idle for three or four years, because they spend their days doing nothing.” This was re-education for a life of crime, as borne out by the fact that recidivism was very high. These detention conditions caused the inmates to turn away from society, as society treated them like “wild animals.”
Inside prison, inmates cannot be taught a trade. The conditions were not there to teach the inmates anything, and there was nothing to induce them to learn. There were no classrooms, desks, chairs, notebooks, pencils or pens. The number of teachers was not what it should have been. Normally there was no money for food, much less to buy a computer.
Corruption is rampant at the Center. Still, there are good and honest people there as well. The Center has a book in which it records the names of the defense attorneys who visit the inmates. As a rule, few attorneys engage in this kind of work. Some are tremendous, but many are negligent and inefficient. Another problem is that at the present time, an inquiry takes six months; in other words, one is in jail for at least six months, whether one is innocent or guilty.
After the fires, some juveniles were transferred to Tacumbú. They were not there long, however, as that was just a temporary arrangement. While they were there, however, these juveniles were not separated from the adult prisoners because space was lacking.
Some street children have never had a family. It is heartbreaking to read their file: “Name of father: unknown,” “name of father: unknown.” It’s dreadful.
One measure that the Court might take to enable the boys who were inmates at the Center to truly get back into mainstream Paraguayan society is simply to ensure that the laws are obeyed, since not one law is being observed at the present time. “Treatment and follow-up” are also essential. The Child and Adolescent Code needs to be modernized and amplified.