Tags: Latin America and the Caribbean

It is not every day that a Government allows the United Nations — let alone the Secretary-General — to review its efforts to promote prison reform…I applaud your commitment to follow the recommendations of the United Nations human rights bodies, including Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak. Reform of penitentiary systems is not an easy task…I commend your decision to stress inmates’ rehabilitation and reinsertion into society. This is an excellent example of the role that the United Nations can play in middle income countries, bringing specialized expertise to bear on complex topics and in areas where national resources and national political commitment are leading the way. – United Nations Secretary-General BanKi-moon , speech at the Montevideo Penitentiary Centre, Uruguay, June 2011*


The critical situation of the prison system dominated the political agenda in Uruguay for many years, but efforts to make changes were slow and ineffective. In 2009, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment visited Uruguay and concluded that only a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system, based on international human rights norms, could improve the situation. His visit provided an objective evaluation that galvanized public interest and political will to tackle the problem. The government turned to the United Nations system for support. The United Nation’s impartiality, normative role and ability to leverage experiences from around the world were viewed as critical for addressing such a complex issue. The United Nations elaborated a Joint Programme that facilitated an inter-institutional and inter-agency approach to penal reform and aimed to foster changes across the entire justice system as well as the grounding of all policies and programmes in international human rights standards. Through the work of the Joint Programme, significant advances have been made. These include a large increase in resources for prison reform, better infrastructure, officials trained on legal norms and standards regarding prisons, improvement of health care services in prisons, specific services for vulnerable groups in prison, as well as a substantial shift in favour of the social reintegration of prisoners and alternative sentences.

Country context

Uruguay is a constitutional republic with a multi-party democracy. With a Gross National Income per capita of US$ 14,640 (2011), the World Bank classifies Uruguay as an upper-middle-income country.1 Positive human development indicators include high literacy rates, an educated workforce, low levels of unemployment and high levels of social spending in relation to Gross Domestic Product. As an upper-middle-income country, official development assistance flows have not played a significant role in Uruguay’s development.

The challenge has been to define Uruguay’s needs as an upper-middle income country and the international cooperation strategy that is required to meet them. In this context, the United Nations’ normative role with regard to the protection of human rights, promotion of universal values and pursuit of global dialogue, has been highly valued by national stakeholders.2

Uruguay is one of eight pilot countries for the United Nations Delivering as One initiative for system-wide coherence.

Human rights situation

While Uruguay has ratified core United Nations human rights treaties, the challenge remains to implement these obligations. In recent years, progress has been made in creating institutions to promote and protect human rights, such as the Institución Nacional de Derechos Humanos y Defensoría del Pueblo (National Human Rights Institution and Ombudsman), formed in 2012.

The most pressing human rights concerns in Uruguay include violence against women, trafficking in women and children, discrimination against persons of African descent and the poor conditions and severe overcrowding in prisons. The issue of prison conditions and related human rights abuses have dominated the public and political agenda for many years.

The situation of prisons

In 2005, the deteriorating situation in prisons prompted the country’s president to declare a State of Humanitarian Emergency within the prison system. However, despite the political priority placed on prison reform, change remained slow and ineffective.



When the United Nations Secretary-General launched Delivering as One in 2007, the governments of eight countries—Albania, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Pakistan, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uruguay, and Viet Nam—volunteered to become “Delivering as One” pilots. The pilot countries agreed to work with the United Nations system to capitalize on the strengths and comparative advantages of the different members of the United Nations family. Since then, Delivering as One has been adopted by a total of 32 countries.3 Together they are seeking innovative ways to increase the United Nations system’s impact through more coherent programmes, reduced transaction costs for governments, and lower overhead costs for the United Nations system. As called for by the UN General Assembly in the 2012 resolution on the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review of UN operational activities for development (QCPR), the UN Development Group is currently developing the second generation of Delivering as One based on Standard Operating Procedures and a firm focus on results, monitoring and evaluation, and accountability.4


By 2009, the penitentiary system was in a state of virtual collapse. The magnitude of the penitentiary crisis, and the risk that it could lead to a highly volatile social and political situation, prompted the government to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Novak, to visit Uruguay in March 2009. To prepare and support his visit, the United Nations convened working groups on the issue of prisons, and coordinated meetings with civil society and government to ensure all perspectives were brought to his attention.5

In his report to the Human Rights Council of December 20096 , the Special Rapporteur expressed deep concern about a series of issues related to his mandate. The report included the following major human rights concerns:

  • Major overcrowding, with some prisons housing five times more prisoners than their capacity;
  • Excessive use of pre-trial detention (65 percent of prisoners are pre-trial detainees);
  • Torture, excessive use of force and ill-treatment in police stations, prisons and juvenile detention facilities, as well as a culture of impunity for the perpetrators;
  • Lack of water, sanitation and access to medical treatment in certain detention centres;
  • High rates of inter-prisoner violence and housing of pre-trial detainees with convicted prisoners;
  • Inadequate accommodation for female prisoners with children and those in late stages of pregnancy and lack of implementation of a national action plan on domestic violence;
  • Beatings and ill-treatment of juveniles in detention, poor conditions and lack of opportunities for education or vocational training; and
  • Few, if any, opportunities for education or vocational training to facilitate rehabilitation.

The Special Rapporteur concluded that nothing less than a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system, based on international human rights standards, could improve the situation.

The Special Rapporteur’s visit proved to be instrumental in galvanizing political will and momentum to tackle the issue of prison reform. It provided an external, independent and expert perspective, as well as an objective evaluation of prison conditions in Uruguay. The extensive media attention his visit received helped raise public awareness on the issue. In doing so, the Special Rapporteur’s visit catalyzed action on the part of all national counterparts, making it possible to come to a political agreement that cut across political party lines. The incoming government (2010) attached great importance to the report and to following up on the recommendations. The issue was particularly poignant as many government ministers, including the president himself, had been political prisoners under a former military dictatorship.


The recommendations of the Special Rapporteur called for an integrated approach that could make improvements across the entire criminal justice system. They also underlined the need to address the structural and root causes that lay behind the grave situation. These included the societal mindset that favoured criminalizing and punishing detainees over their rehabilitation.

In addressing such a complex and sensitive issue, the government turned to the United Nations as a trusted partner. The United Nations’ impartiality, absence of a political agenda and ability to leverage experiences from around the world was highly valued. In response to the government’s request for support, the United Nations elaborated the United Nations Joint Programme: Support to the Reform of the Institutions of People Deprived of Liberty (2010-2012). The Joint Programme was designed to facilitate an inter-institutional approach to penal reform. It was designed within the context of Delivering as One. As such, the programme is implemented through an inter-agency coordination mechanism, the Management Committee, which includes the following United Nations partners: The office of the UN Resident Coordinator, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN-Women. The work of the Joint Programme is based on two key principles: an integrated approach to penal reform and human rights.

Integrated approach: The report of the Special Rapporteur had shown the need for a broader vision on the issue of penal reform; one that “moved away from a punitive penal system to one aiming to reintegrate prisoners in society” (Special Rapporteur). To do so, it was necessary to explore and strengthen links within different parts of the penal system: the police, judiciary and correction facilities, as well as between the penal system and other relevant sectors, such as health and education. The Joint Programme, therefore, works with a broad range of sectors, in addition to the justice sector. These include social workers and education and health services.

The Joint Programme also provides a space for information exchange, bringing together over 400 stakeholders from different ministerial bodies, the police, social and health workers, education, the media, the private sector, civil society and the development community. This space provided a platform to enhance dialogue and coordination between line ministries that would not typically work together on penal issues, such as the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Education and Culture. Owing to the impartiality and legitimacy with which the United Nations was viewed, the Joint Programme provided a safe and neutral space to discuss sensitive issues, for example the issue of women with children in prisons and guidelines for the treatment of detainees with drug addictions.

Through the Joint Programme, the United Nations was also able to reach out to civil society to include them in the penal reform efforts. Having a space convened by the United Nations also gave civil society direct access to governmental actors, an opportunity for dialogue not always easy to achieve.

A human rights framework for penal reform: Underlying the penal reform strategy was the acknowledgement that though prisoners may be deprived of their liberty, they should not be deprived of their liberties.

Basing penal reform on human rights standards meant:

  • A change of mindset: from one of punishing and criminalizing the detainees to one where they are viewed as rights-holders. Hence it meant reframing education, health and training services in prisons as being a right, not an act of good will.
  • Seeking alternatives to incarceration and focusing on reintegrating the detainees into society;
  • Ensuring that policies, programmes and advocacy strategies are informed by international human rights obligations, such as the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its Optional Protocol, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as recommendations of United Nations human rights mechanisms, including those from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.

With this in mind, the United Nations supported the establishment of a penitentiary school that provided training to the entire prison system, including police officers, prison security guards and civil servants. The aim of the school was to improve the treatment of prisoners, by sensitizing prison officials on the rights of prisoners and on the need to reintegrate convicts into society rather than focusing on punishment. Part of the training, which was provided by experts from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Regional Office for South America, focused on human rights standards related to prisoners and the human rights commitments undertaken by Uruguay, including as a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture. Other United Nations agencies also contributed to the training, including UN-Women on gender issues, ILO on labour issues and UNODC on drug prevention and health issues.

To promote the public’s understanding of and support for social reintegration, the Joint Programme, with the support of the United Nations country team and working with civil society actors, held open workshops throughout the country with neighbourhood associations and communities. These initiatives helped raise awareness of the rights of prisoners to access labour opportunities, education and vocational training, as well as drug rehabilitation programmes. The Resident Coordinator played an important role in raising these issues; at public events and in interviews with the media, the Resident Coordinator underlined that prisoners have rights and that a prosperous Uruguayan society is one in which prisoners are reintegrated into society.

The Joint Programme also worked with the media, conducting seminars that stressed the reasons why prison reform was so important and helping them better understand why the government was spending considerable sums of money in that area. Journalists were also trained on how to report on prison issues. For example, they were sensitized to the fact that if an image of a prisoner is used, they should request the prisoner’s permission first.

The expertise of the United Nations agencies was critical in taking forward the various initiatives of the Joint Programme, ensuring that these initiatives were informed by relevant human rights standards. UNICEF led advocacy on the age of penal responsibility and the need for a separate and autonomous judicial system for juveniles.7 UN-Women undertook an analysis of the specific vulnerabilities of women in prisons, including female prisoners who were pregnant, breastfeeding or with their children. ILO prepared a draft bill on labour rights in prisons with a view to facilitate social reintegration of inmates.


Such a comprehensive overhaul of a penal system requires time. It requires a cultural change, time to train people, to develop institutional capacity and to make changes in policies and legal and administrative systems that have been in place for decades. It will only be in the medium and long term that the impact of reform can be assessed. Nevertheless, the activities of and the approach promoted by the Joint Programme have already shown results in the following areas:

  1. On 15 July 2010, the government passed an emergency budget allowing for the construction of additional prison facilities. The initiative, intended to ease the chronic overcrowding in prisons, resulted in 2,000 new places within the prison capacity. It also enabled the refurbishment, where possible, or closing of facilities with severe infrastructural damage.
  2. In 2011, the emergency budget also enabled the increase and restructuring of personnel in prisons, in line with a more integrated approach to prison services. 1,178 civil penitentiary educators were hired to replace the police guards, as well as 100 administrative posts and 184 technical specialists, such as physicians and social workers.
  3. In June 2010, the government created the Oficina de Supervisión de Libertad Asistida (Office to Supervise Assisted Liberty), a bureau within the National Directorate of Prisons. Under this programme, 100 prisoners have received alternative sentences to perform community service work, under surveillance. The programme will be assessed and if successful, scaled up in the future.
  4. The government has carried out a review of labour laws in order to provide inmates with legal work opportunities and facilitate social reintegration. ILO helped prepare the draft bill on labour rights in prisons, which was recently approved by the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Interior. It is now before parliament for discussion.
  5. Specific guidelines have been prepared and submitted to the government on education and vocational training policies, and other productive activities to facilitate rehabilitation.
  6. As a result of a comprehensive review on the conditions of women and their children in prisons, alternative procedures to deal with this highly vulnerable population have been designed; for example, an alternative sentencing programme has been developed which enables mothers with young children to expend their prison period at home, allowing them to care for their children.
  7. Measures to improve health services in prisons have been introduced, including the creation of drug rehabilitation programs. These measures have created a new partnership between the Ministry of Public Health and the National Drug Commission. For the first time in more than 20 years, some of Uruguay’s biggest prisons have a 24-hour health and emergency service in-house. These include mental health support services. The presence of psychologists and health teams has decreased the high pressure felt in many prison centres and reduced incidences of violence and vulnerability in the centres.
  8. A series of human rights training sessions have been implemented, reaching 10 percent of penitentiary personnel at supervisor level within prisons and juvenile detention centres. As a result, the penitentiary system has, for the first time, a team of mid-ranking officials and supervisors trained on the legal norms and standards regarding prisons. They are aware of the rights of inmates and the corresponding obligations of state officials.
  9. A full revision of the penal and penal procedure codes to bring them in line with human rights standards has been submitted by the government to parliament. The report, prepared by a highly regarded jurist, is providing the basis for parliamentary discussions on the penal codes.
  10. As a result of multi-stakeholder engagement in the penal reform process, civil society is playing an increasingly active role. They have been undertaking studies and diagnoses on the reform issue and participating in programmes relating to prison conditions and other reforms.
  11. The government has carried out a comprehensive situation analysis of various demographic groups, such as women, within the prison system and has been consulting with these groups in the process. This has facilitated the creation of a model that responded more accurately to the interests and needs of detainees.

Three key factors have contributed to the success of the Joint Programme in achieving the above results: i) the inter-agency and inter-institutional approach; no agency on its own – at the national or international level – could have undertaken such an ambitious reform process; ii) the neutral space that the Joint Programme provided, which enabled open dialogue among all the relevant actors; iii) the focus on human rights norms, which galvanized action and attention across party lines and provided a new model for penal reform.

As an indicator of the success of the Joint Programme, the government has asked the United Nations to take the Joint Programme forward into a second phase. In phase two, the Joint Programme will focus on designing a new and improved institutional framework for the National Rehabilitation Institute (the body now in charge of managing prisons nationwide); supporting the implementation of labour policies in the penitentiary system; developing guidelines on the treatment of drug abusers; and continuing training for penitentiary directors and supervisors on human rights and prison management. At this stage, the United Nations financial contribution is no longer the significant factor.


  1. The visit of a Special Procedure’s mandate holder of the United Nations Human Rights Council can serve as a powerful catalyst for reform on complex issues, while providing valuable expertise on how to carry out reforms, based on international human rights standards.
  2. The United Nations’ normative mandate, convening role and political leadership can help bring diverse actors together to work jointly on complex and sensitive issues and ensure that reform efforts are guided by human rights standards and principles.
  3. An inter-agency approach enables the United Nations to bring the different expertise of the agencies to bear on complex issues and promote an efficient and integrated process.
  4. National leadership and ownership is critical in moving forward an ambitious rights-based reform agenda.


  1. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/ NY.GNP.PCAP.PP.CD
  2. United Nations Development Assistance Framework in Uruguay: 2011-2015, p.14.
  3. UNDG Website: www.undg.org/index.cfm?P=7.
  4. UNDG Website: www.undg.org/index.cfm?P=7.
  5. In preparation for the Special Rapporteur’s visit, the United Nations country team in Uruguay convened a United Nations Working Group and coordinated with government and civil society organizations to ensure that: (i) all relevant perspectives were brought to the Special Rapporteur’s attention; and (ii) that the Special Rapporteur was granted complete and unimpeded access to all places of detention, interviews with detainees and access to relevant documentation.
  6. Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak, Mission to Uruguay, United Nations Human Rights Council, 21 December 2009, A/HRC/13/39/Add.1.
  7. These activities were undertaken in line with recommendations from the Committee on the Rights of the Child. See: CRC/C/URY/CO/2, paragraph 68.

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