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Prisons in Latin America

The often horrifying conditions in Latin American prisons receive relatively little attention in the United States. A recent study, Evaluation of Prisons in the Organization of American States, however, casts light on some of them. How well or badly a prisoner is treated in the Bolivian prison system, for example, depends on how much an inmate can pay for the size of his cell and for visiting privileges. Ability to pay may even determine length of confinement, a situation that points to judicial corruption. Juveniles 16 and over are not separated from adults, and abuse of juveniles is consequently common. Rehabilitation programs are scarce to non-existent. Violence is endemic, with prisoners in control and gangs operating unhindered from their cells.

The situation in Brazil mirrors many of the same deplorable conditions. Not even the most egregious cases of torture in Brazilian prisons are investigated, the report notes; and women are ignored by the system, with virtually nothing in the way of prenatal care or other services.


Many of the abuses stand out as violations of the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. The right to humane treatment and the right to be tried without undue delay are just two of the rights often denied in poor Latin American prisons, but also in prisons under the aegis of a powerful northern member of the O.A.S., the United States.

The 2006 Magsaysay Awards

In April 1957, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund established the Ramón Magsaysay Awards to honor the memory of the charismatic Philippine president who had died a month earlier in a tragic plane crash. Since then over 250 individuals and institutions throughout Asia have been recognized for leadership in government service, public service, community leadership, literature and the arts, peace and international understanding and, since 2001, for emergent leadership. The 2006 Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership recognizes the work of the Gawad Kalinga Community Development Foundation, a movement founded by Antonio Meloto, a successful Philippine businessman, who began a full-time ministry with the poor in 1995, working in Bagong Silang, a huge squatter relocation site in metropolitan Manila. The name Gawad Kalinga means to give care.

As Meloto came to know the conditions under which the squatters lived, he decided that the most critical need was for low-cost housing. But from the beginning the emphasis of Gawad Kalinga was to build not simply houses but communities. The new houses would be given to the poorest families, who would help volunteers build them and live according to neighborhood covenants. The success of this first project, Bagong Silang Village, led to similar Gawad Kalinga villages in other parts of the Philippines, and Meloto’s tireless fund-raising captured the interest of expatriate Filipinos in the United States and elsewhere. Today there are more than 850 Gawad Kalinga villages across the Philippines. Gawad Kalinga is committed to building 7,000 new communities by the year 2010. In the words of the citation for the Magsaysay Award, Antonio Meloto has inspired Filipinos to believe with pride that theirs can be a nation without slums.

Influence Peddler

Mr. Ralph Reed lost his bid to run for the lieutenant governorship of Georgia, but only because his deals with lobbyist Jack Abramoff were still lodged deeply in the public’s mind. In one instance, his firm received more than $4 million to organize Christian opposition to new Indian casinos, which held back the competition for Mr. Abramoff’s clientstribes with casinos already in operation.

Gambling may be a sin, as the fundamentalist Christians whom Reed mobilized believe. But what do you call what Reed did? His antigambling campaign was a grand slam for Abramoff, his clients and for Reed, until the public got wind of it.

The example points to a particular benefit of democratic elections, even primaries: they typically give voters enough information to hold candidates accountable. The candidates broadcast their own best accomplishments and go out of their way to publicize their opponents’ shortcomings and misdeeds. Regarding Mr. Reed, Georgia’s Republican voters judged that the negative outweighed the positive, and he lost by a wide margin.

What is worrisome, though, is where former candidates venture next. Reed has already mentioned putting his energies into the 2008 presidential campaign, writing direct mail messages, commercials and speeches. Behind-the-scenes influence can be hugely powerful, yet it offers none of the transparency that party politics affords.

Worse, given enough time, voters forget what once kept them from supporting a particular candidate. That is exactly what the Reeds of this world count on and wait for. Citizens, beware!

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