Children’s Rights Committee Will Review January Deaths, State Response, and Juvenile Detention Policies.

June 21, 2011, Geneva—Today at 3:00 pm local time (8:00 am in Panama), the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will begin to examine Panama’s record on children’s rights and its compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including a fire this past January at Tocumen detention center that killed five children.

This evaluation comes just one day after at least a dozen juveniles suffered burns in another fire in at the Arco Iris detention center.  Authorities have still not provided information on this tragedy.

Along with Panama’s state report, the Committee will receive and review a highly critical report from the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and Panamanian civil society groups (the Alianza Ciudadana Pro Justicia, and the Asamblea Ciudadana de Panama), documenting the serious failure of the juvenile detention system to protect the basic rights of children.

“Make no mistake about it: the fire at Tocumen was both foreseeable and preventable,” said Professor James Cavallaro, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.  “Yesterday’s fire confirms that Panama has not taken the necessary steps to protect the lives of juveniles in detention centers.  Unless Panama changes its failed policies, tragedies such as these will continue to occur.”

The report documents a pattern of physical abuse by detention center officials and police; overcrowding and unsafe conditions; and failure to provide juveniles with basic services, such as health care or education.  It also details the January 9 fire at the Centro de Cumplimiento de Tocumen, which started when police threw tear gas bombs that ignited a mattress, and ended with seven boys burning in their cells while guards and watched from outside the building.

Five of those youths died.

The twenty-six page report, Preventable Tragedy in Panama—Unnecessary Deaths and Rights Violations in Juvenile Detention Centers, is based on visits to detention centers, and interviews with detainees and government officials.  It includes a legal analysis, which describes Panama’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, among other international standards, and concludes that Panama has failed to protect the rights of juvenile detainees and has subjected them to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

According to the report, juveniles throughout the Panamanian juvenile detention system are routinely deprived of basic necessities, like water, fresh air, and light. Prison administrators crowd juveniles into small cells, and allow them only a few hours of schooling or recreation per week.  In interviews, juveniles described regular beatings by guards.  They also reported being shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with tear gas.

“As a nation rich in resources, Panama can and should do better,” said Virginia Corrigan, JD ’11, a primary author of the report and a member of the clinical team.  “It’s a matter of political will.”

Specific abuses documented in the report include:

  • The police, guards, and detention center officials’ complete disregard for the lives of these juveniles, use of excessive force, and failure to allow the children to exit the building in the January 2011 fire.
  • The lack of a system to prevent incidents such as this fire, especially given that a similar burning death had already taken place in another cell in the same detention center less than two years before this incident.
  • Physical violence and continued abuse from the guards, as well as horrendous living conditions, constituting cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
  • Inadequate opportunities for visits with family members.
  • The failure to provide adequate physical or mental health services, specialized care for detainees with disabilities, adequate educational or vocational training, and recreation and work activities, thereby severely impairing detainees’ ability to assume productive roles in society upon their release.

The report demands that Panama comply with its obligations under international law.  Specific recommendations include:

  • Fully investigate the incidents that occurred at Tocumen on January 9, 2011 and November 7, 2009 and initiate and conclude prosecutions where appropriate.
  • Establish clear policies prohibiting the beating or shooting of juvenile detainees, and implement effective disciplinary measures for those who violate these policies.
  • Institute strict controls on or prohibit the use of tear gas canisters in juvenile detention facilities, and ensure that police and guards comply with these controls by instituting disciplinary proceedings in cases of non-compliance.
  • Provide more accessible medical care, such as on-site clinics, to centers like Basilio Lakas that lack such facilities.
  • Hire more teachers to work in the centers, allowing detainees to take classes in more subjects and ensure that they learn at least the basic subjects.
  • Provide more vocational training opportunities, either inside or outside the centers.
  • Improve conditions in the cells; ensure that cells and hallways are regularly cleaned.
  • Never enclose a juvenile in a cell unless there are adequate sanitary facilities in the cell.
  • Support the reform efforts of the Coordinator of Therapeutic Programs of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, the agency in charge of supervising Panama’s juvenile detention centers.

The information in the report is based on visits to four juvenile detention centers; interviews with some 75 children and adolescents in detention; meetings with detention center agents, other authorities and stakeholders; and a review of official documents and information from government sources.  The Clinic’s research builds on reports from Panamanian human rights organizations, and is part of a multi-year project on detention conditions in Panama that has led to this report, as well as the publication of an extensive, book-length report on adult prisons.

The Committee will begin its evaluation of Panama with a Pre-Sessionial Working Group tomorrow.  It will question the Panamanian government and give its final conclusions and recommendations during its 58th session in September and October.

The report is available in English and in Spanish.

For additional information, call:

In Geneva: 041 78 642 6672 (English, Spanish)

In Panama: 3027860 (Spanish)

Prof. James Cavallaro: 1-617-669-8606 (English, Spanish)