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Argentina's prison system is holding thousands more inmates than it can house


Argentina's prisons have been overcrowded for years. The country's Ministry of Justice and Human Rights has declared the system in a national state of emergency since 2019. Inmates routinely go without sufficient food, medical attention, soap, toilet paper, even beds. And it has fallen on their families to try and provide the basics for them. Lucila Pellettieri is on the line now from Buenos Aires. She's the senior reporter for the Global Press Journal and has been covering this story. Ms. Pellettieri, thanks so much for being with us.

LUCILA PELLETTIERI: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What have you found in your reporting?

PELLETTIERI: I have been investigating how this crisis is affecting the families of people in prison. And I found that the overpopulation means that the living condition and resources available are decreasing. So their families and mainly the womans (ph) of the families are responsible for bringing them food, clothes. But they are also responsible for making paperwork for the relative to receive medical attention, to study, and to have a lawyer, for example.

SIMON: Yeah.

PELLETTIERI: They are taking care of all this task while they work and take care of their families outside prison. And they do all of this while they are dealing with the stigma of having a family member in prison.

SIMON: And a family member who they have to provide for in prison.

PELLETTIERI: Yes. And, well, the issue is that as the state is not doing it, they are taking all of the responsibility.

SIMON: Yeah.

PELLETTIERI: And the stigma is making it more hard to achieve. For example, one of my sources, Monica Tapia, told me that she was fired for all of her cleaning jobs after telling her employers that her husband was in prison. She told me that sometimes she wakes up at night crying and needs psychological help. But she cannot afford it.

SIMON: Tell us about some of the stories that stand out for you. I have to tell you, you have a story there about a man who had an ear problem that I can't stop thinking about.

PELLETTIERI: Yes. Well, this is a case of Monica Tapia's husband. This man had a cockroach in his ear for three months. He told about this situation to her (ph) wife, and her (ph) wife did all the paperwork to get him medical assistance. But it took three months to - a doctor to saw (ph) him.

SIMON: The prison system is overburdened. Only - and I have read only 57% of the inmates even have a bed. What can be done about that?

PELLETTIERI: The main issue we are having here with overpopulation is that it had been changes in the law that are making more easy to people to go to prison and more power to get out of prison. So in this situation, the people who is living there is going to increase every year. And building more prison is not going to really solve the issue if the system continue to work this way.

SIMON: What does the government say? Any plans to try and improve conditions?

PELLETTIERI: I actually talked with two people from government. One was Maria Laura Garrigos, the undersecretary of penitentiary affairs at the Federal Penitentiary Service. And she said that efforts are underway to improve living conditions, but the agency cannot control the number of people sentenced to its facilities every year. And the other people from the government I could talk with was Stella Maris Martinez, the general defender of the nation. She is in charge of defending victims. She told us that she's doing her best to improve the living condition, but that she is not the one in charge of deciding who is going into the prison.

SIMON: What are some people who've examined the situation calling for to try and improve conditions?

PELLETTIERI: Well, they are asking for more support. They are asking for better living conditions, better treatment. They want to have more opportunities of having a shop while they are in jail. And they want to have more access to that location because they see this is really important to prevent people to go to jail again after they commit their sentences.

SIMON: Lucila Pellettieri, who is the Global Press Journal senior reporter in Buenos Aires, thanks so much for being with us.

PELLETTIERI: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIDNIGHT HOUR'S "WANDERLUST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.