Drug Laws and Overcrowding in Ecuador: The story of a young man called Robin

Researching the conditions of Ecuadorian prisons in relationship to natural disasters for my previous blog article, I asked many of my friends and contacts here about their opinion of the prison system. It was then that I realized how widespread incarceration was: generally everyone I spoke to had a close relative or acquaintance in prison, with the majority for drug-related offences.

Widespread incarceration

The latest data shows that in 2016, Ecuador counted 26,421 people incarcerated. With a prison population rate of 160 per 100,000, the country ranks 130th in the world. Telling is the develop of the prison population over the past 15 years. Shifting between 7,000 and 9,000 since the 1980s – making a prison population rate similar to those in most European countries – the prison population first reached above 10,000 people in 2004 and since then has increased exponentially.

Source: World Prison Brief

Along with a rapidly increasing prison population came the problem of overcrowding: the Ecuadorian prisons had an occupation of 114% in 2014. This problem is visible in many Latin American countries and research points to the strict and tough drug laws as the cause of this problem. Until 2014, drug-related offences had a minimum punishment of 12-years imprisonment and a maximum of 16 years in Ecuador. In comparison, murder had a maximum sentence of 16 years. This resulted in the drug-related offences as the leading crime for imprisonment: 26% of those in prison in 2014.

Seeing the situation for myself

To get a better understanding of the connection between the tough drug laws, overcrowdedness and the widespread incarceration, I started looking for someone to tell me their story. This is when I met Señora Leti, traveling together in a taxi to Portoviejo. She told me about her son Robin in prison, and later invited me to come along to meet him and ask him for myself about his experience of being incarcerated.

El Rodeo prison in Portoviejo

At the end of December, we travel together again to Portoviejo, this time with destination the El Rodeo prison, that also features in my previous blog. After standing out in the sun for two hours and undergoing a rigorous security check that includes three different scans, we walk into the recently renovated visitors’ centre. This large area is occupied with picnic tables where prisoners in orange tshirts, orange sweatpants and the occasional orange beanie are sharing food with their families, while their children are running around.

Meeting Robin

Robin Ramirez - WhatsApp Image 2017-12-22 at 09.33.25
Selfie by Robin, taken before being send to prison

And in walks Robin, a young man of 21 years old, carrying tattoos down his right arm and neck and a large but shy smile on his face. Sitting down, I start asking him about his past and the events leading up to this moment. Eager to converse but timid in nature, he starts telling me little by little about his youth while looking at me from the corner of his eyes. Growing up with his mother and 2 siblings, he left school at the age of 16 and started working as a mechanic. On the 16th of April of 2016, he was living with a friend when one of the largest earthquakes in Ecuador’s recent history hit Pedernales. One wall of their house collapsed but fortunately no one was hurt. But it is because of this broken wall that Robin would later be arrested and send to prison.

About 25 days after the earthquake, the police acted on a tip, rated his house and found 300 grams of marijuana that was now exposed due to the broken down wall. Robin tells me he knew about the drugs, but ensures me that it was his friend who was dealing. Accused by proximity, Robin was arrested and the next day sent to prison awaiting his trial.

Robin’s experience

Robin spent 4 months in prison before appearing before a judge. Not allowed or asked to speak during his trial and share his side of the story, the case was dealt with within an hour or two and  Robin, then 18 years old, was found guilty and received a 5-year sentence. He spent the first year and 9 months in Bahía Prison before being transferred to Portoviejo’s El Rodeo, where he arrived 1 month ago when I talked to him. “No,” he corrects me “one month and 11 days ago.” Time has become a large preoccupation of Robin.

His punishment is not only that of limited liberty, but also of depression-provoking circumstances.

Robin describes how there is nothing here to keep his mind of his situation, and often feels bored, lonely and, what I would describe as, depressed. Where in Bahía the prisoners have access to a gym, a pool table and a television, in Portoviejo there is none of that. Asking him about the worst aspect of imprisonment, he mentions the food: “We get two small pieces of bread in the morning, and often cold food for lunch and dinner.” His mother adds: “He cannot eat this food, look how skinny he is!”

It seems to me that his focus on food is related to his health and when asking if he has access to psychological support, a large question mark appears on his face. Not having heard of this ever, I conclude that his punishment is not only that of limited liberty, but also of depression-provoking circumstances.

Rehabilitation and release

Ironically called ‘Centre of Rehabilitation’, El Rodeo does not provide Robin with any useful opportunities to prepare for his release. Work is not available, not even supportive tasks such as cleaning or cooking inside the prison. A high school education class is only available to those after one year of incarceration at the current facility and there is no programme of learning practical skills that are most useful upon release, such as money management or work-related training, thinking of car mechanics in the case of Robin.

After almost three hours, we have to say goodbye. Right before we do, I ask Robin about his plans for the future: what does we want to do after his prison sentence? “Don’t know” he answers and his shoulders and gaze drop down. Encouraging him to remain hopeful and reminding him that in one year he could apply for early release, he shrugs his shoulders: “I guess I just focus on the day-to-day life here.” When asking his mother about this later, she explains: “He needs all his energy to get by. He told me the other day he sees no future and feels suicidal.”

Hope on the horizon

The meeting with Robin was emotional, especially the despairingly end. Unfortunately, Robin’s story fits perfectly within the research on Ecuador’s and Latin America’s prison conditions. But there is hope on the horizon for people like Robin. In 2008, the Ecuadorian government started a process to revise the drug laws, starting by releasing about 2000 prisoners, mainly women, incarcerated for carrying drugs and often having received disproportional long prison sentences. In 2014, the Código Orgánico Integral Penal was adopted by the parliament and lowered the punishment for the possession of drugs and thus shifting the penal focus to dealers in stead of consumers.

However, 2015 unfortunately showed a set back. The year leading up to the presidential elections, former President Corea drastically changed his narrative from humane punishment and rehabilitation to a “zero tolerance drug policy” and focusing on the punishment of “micro-trafficking”. Many, including  the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ecuador’s public defender’s office and the international advocacy organisation Drug Policy Alliance, saw this as “desperate” and “inefficient” move.

Ecuador’s Legal Drug Possessions
Type of Drug Before 2015 Since 2015
Heroin Up to 1 gram Up to 0.1 grams
Cocaine Up to 50 grams Up to 2 grams
Marijuana Up to 300 grams Up to 20 grams

Source: InSight Crime

Is there hope for Robin?

Unfortunately, with a new president a drastic change in Ecuador’s drug laws is still pending. Even though the penal narrative of the government focuses on rehabilitation and ending overcrowdedness, there are no results yet that can account for this. Incarceration rates keep increasing and people like Robin feel lost and forgotten. It is people like him, trying to make the best out of the little resources available, that are the face of the “imprisonment of the poor“. The strict drug laws in Latin America mainly target those committing “economic crimes” as a way of getting by in the harsh reality such as life at the Ecuadorian coast.

Fortunately, Robin has a supportive family and is convinced he will stay far away from drugs and dealers when he gets out. Nonetheless, in a small city like Pedernales, where everyone has a neighbour or family member imprisoned or involved with drugs, Robin will need to show the toughest mindset to avoid involvement or even association. And five years in a failed rehabilitation centre will not prepare him for this.

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