Slow wheels of justice clog prisons in Panama

June 30, 1991|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Sun Staff Correspondent

PANAMA CITY, Panama -- A wretched stench permeates th air around this city's 86-year-old maximum-security prison -- built for 250 inmates, now holding 1,200 men.

More than 85 percent have never been tried. Many have been awaiting trial for five years or more. Still more have been waiting 18 months, ever since President Bush launched the U.S. invasion to "restore democracy and justice to Panama."

Lunatics, AIDS victims, drunks, drug addicts, cronies of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega, murderers, vagrants, petty thieves and dope dealers, all crowd under the red tin roof in the humid, 90-degree heat.

The U.S.-built Modelo Prison and Panama's 43 other jails and provincial lockups provide the only point upon which every Panamanian politician can agree: With nearly 80 percent of its 3,744 prisoners awaiting trial, the system is a scandal, the rear end of a judicial system gone awry.

* Politically appointed justices of the peace, many of them non-lawyers, routinely sentence minor offenders to the Modelo maximum-security prison or to the penal colony on Coiba Island because there is nowhere else to send them.

* People can be detained for years on the strength of a "denuncia," or criminal complaint, that results in an investigation by the attorney general's office. The investigation may ultimately find the person innocent. More than 17,000 denuncias were lodged in the first nine months after the U.S. invasion on Dec. 20, 1989.

* Prisoners' appeals and other Supreme Court records were destroyed in the invasion, forcing lawyers and judges to try to reconstruct documents while the prisoners wait.

* Inmate records at the Modelo Prison were sacked in the invasion, and all the prisoners fled. Police said they knew who the prisoners were and recaptured them. The Modelo population has jumped from 600 in the last days of the Noriega regime to about 1,200 today.

* If a suspect has powerful friends, money and a good lawyer, he can avoid jail altogether. The country's former police chief was recently released from jail because of a minor ear infection and placed under house arrest. Poor defendants rarely have a

lawyer. There are only 20 public defenders for the whole country.

* Of the 50 or so Noriega military men and civilians awaiting trial, only one has been convicted -- of a crime unrelated to the old regime. Many view themselves as "prisoners of war" whose only crime was to defend the country from a foreign invader.

"Hundreds if not thousands of Panamanians who have not been tried, who may never be tried and who, if tried, may never be convicted, are nevertheless incarcerated, usually more than a year, in seriously overcrowded prisons," said an April report by Americas Watch, a New York-based human rights group.

"In many cases, the time spent in jail already exceeds the time they would have spent had they been tried and convicted," the report said.

* Recently, the government for the first time allowed a group of foreign journalists to visit the Modelo Prison.

In the prison's bowels are the security cells for troublesome inmates. The faces peer out of the grille at the top of the door. A single light bulb shines behind them, casting shadows in the dimly lighted corridor.

"They kept me in the dark in one of those cells for six months without a chance to get outside," says Benjamin Colamarco, the former head of the Dignity Battalion, the Noriega paramilitary force, who is now kept in more comfortable quarters.

Nearby, an AIDS patient is dying slowly. The warden had won his release on humanitarian grounds, but there were no funds to send him home to his family near the Costa Rican border. There is no money to screen prisoners for the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The 17 AIDS patients are segregated from the general prison population, as are homosexuals.

A few doors away, violent psychotics are restrained in their cells. Almost none has access to modern anti-depressive drugs. Panama has no mental health facilities for them,nor for the prison's drug addicts.

A madman wanders down the corridor, talking about Santa Claus.

There is one doctor for the whole prison.

* The second floor is different. Its dormitory wing houses 24 well-to-do prisoners, including Mr. Colamarco and Jaime Simmons, the former head of the national savings bank under General Noriega. Here the well-dressed prisoners are allowed televisions and radios.

Since the invasion, Mr. Colamarco has been awaiting trial on treason charges stemming from what he says was "harassment of American troops."

Mr. Colamarco refers to himself as a prisoner of war and has appealed his treatment to the Organization of American States, contending that he is a "patriot who tried to defend my country."

Mr. Simmons says the charge he faces of stealing from the bank would get him only six months in jail or a $150 fine. "I have been here 18 months, and there is still no indication when I will get out," he says.

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