g) Expert opinion of Mario Ramón Torres Portillo, psychologist In 1992 and 1993 the witness worked sporadically at the Institute as a psychological assistant. He volunteered his services, with authorization from the Ministry of Justice. In 1994 he was invited to participate as an expert at the Center.
The atmosphere in the prison system is one of paranoia, including the director, and prison guards and the young people. Nongovernmental organizations, therefore, have limited access to the facility. Yet when the press publicized the situation at the Center, the Ministry of Justice had to provide the media with an opportunity to visit the Center.
Although the Center called itself a re-education institution, it did not fulfill that function; it [was] a school where life lost any meaning.” Any attempt to educate and communicate was completely abandoned. This was the finding of research done by “Defence of Children International,” the Office of the Attorney General and UNICEF in 1996, 1997 and 1998. The State authorities disregarded that investigation, which had found that the conceptual and symbolic levels of the adolescent inmates’ intellectual growth and development had stopped.
Fighting among adolescents is very common. In the case of the Center, however, the situation was exacerbated by the absence of “adequate affective and environmental restraint.” The result was rampant paranoia and mistrust. The juveniles in the Center were polarized into opposing gangs as a result of neglect and the “lack of affective, social and methodological restraint.” The fighting among the inmates could be mortal combat, because they were living in a state of uncontrollable anxiety. There was nothing to restrain their feelings that would enable them to sort out those feelings, contain them or redirect them.
The Center should have had an interdisciplinary group of professionals to address the needs of the juvenile inmates, who were all neglected fringe elements virtually excluded from society.
A basement at the Center was used for internal discipline. The “rebellious inmates, those who were not accepted within the institution or who did not toe the line,” were all taken there routinely. In that damp place, they would spend hours on their knees in a dark room with no ventilation. By the time they came out, “they were dim-witted, almost as if they had been drugged by that total abandonment.” The atmosphere itself was “a suffocating torture.”
The families of the inmates are stigmatized. Society’s perception of these families is that they “have created a monster.” This, in turn, causes the families to feel a sense of shame as they tend to think that they alone are to blame.
When the juveniles leave prison, they feel persecuted. Until very recently, these children’s identification cards were marked to show that they were ex-convicts, which meant that they had no chance of being accepted at any academic or public institution. In the end, their only option was to continue to commit crime compulsively.
The children who were inmates in Cellblock No. 8 at the Center could not have had suicidal tendencies that would drive them to light the fire in an act of collective suicide, since children (and everyone) fear death. But assuming, for the sake of argument, that collective suicide was a possibility, the pressure from the outside to do just that was very strong.
The transfer from the ‘Panchito López’ Center to the Itauguá Education Center represents no progress at all because the authorities have not learned what happens psychologically and socially, and do not understand the methods that should be used with these “mistreated and violated” children. Still, change is possible if the political will is there.
Juvenile facilities should have no more than forty inmates.