Prison Conditions in Portugal
Dores, António Pedro
- Publisher: European Observatory of Prisons/Antigone
Prisão | Portugal
GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF THE PORTUGUESE PENITENTIARY SYSTEM
Portugal has 51 prisons of different types: 15 penitentiaries (“central prisons”, normally larger ones) for inmates condemned to serve more than 6 months; 31 penitentiaries (“regional prisons”) for inmates condemned to serve less than 6 months; and five penitentiaries (“special prisons”) for inmates who need special attention, such as women, youths, policeman, and the sick (hospital).
The first type of penitentiary has security wings to provide stricter isolation for problematic prisoners out of disciplinary regime. There are three types of general security regimes: medium, high and special. Monsanto Prison being the only special regime penitentiary – meaning a kind of North-American supermax regime.
Almost all prison buildings are old. A renewal programme began in 2001, and in 2004 an official assessment of the prison system was presented to the public with the declaration that, with the progress being made, it would be possible to have an up-to-date “European-style” prison system within 12 years (2016). This programme included the concentration of facilities and population in just a few much larger high-tech buildings. However, due to the financial crisis, except for Caxias and Carregueira, which are new buildings (Caxias built into an older complex), all the plans to build new prisons were halted and the decommissioning of old prison sites reversed. In its place is now a renovation programme of old buildings, meaning later 19th century, first half of the 20th century.
Starting in the 80’s, the Portuguese penitentiary system is characterized by the growing political weight of the guards’ union, the introduction of organized distribution of illegal drugs into the prisons resulting from the intensification of the “war on drugs,” and the fragility of the administrative system with its tendency to hide behind justifications. These issues, among others, make for a prison system which, forgotten and left to its own devices by an ignorant and pretentious political class, has become inward looking and aggressive in its defensiveness. A problematic dynamic that has led to the stigmatisation not just of the inmates but also of the people working in prison.
The problems continue with a chain of command broken at various levels, most significantly between the Ministry and the director-general, between the director-general and the guard corps and between prison directors and guards. Disconnected from the Ministry, the Directorate General is frequently left to both draw up prison policies and to be publicly accountable for what goes on in prison. The prison directors, out of touch with the DG, are left at the mercy of securitism (the prioritisation of security), which is the responsibility of the chiefs of the guards, whose power basis is long standing. The chiefs of the guards tend to get assigned to specific prisons on a long term basis, in contrast to the mobility of the directors . This increases the likelihood that a director may not even get to fully comprehend the power dynamics in the prison, even when these are arrayed against her/him. There are also those directors who are afraid of getting to know the wings and talk to the prisoners, something that the DG does not appear to think it makes them unsuitable for the position. There is the informality that develops between guards and prisoners that can grow into a sort of intimacy where the exchange of favours and privileges are used as management tools. And, perhaps most glaringly, inspection entities who fear that their actions might disturb the status quo, the informal outlines of which they do not know nor want to know. The inspectors’ argument being that they need to have the trust of the local agents under inspection because they are dependent upon the information that these may be willing to proffer, and that penitentiary powers must not be challenged, for those who would suffer the consequences, as retaliation, would be the prisoners.
The fact is that each prison has its own rules defined locally, and neither attempts at standardization via administrative nor legislative means can bear results in a system in which respect for legality is not assured by either regulatory entities, the courts or police forces.