Bayamón Correctional Center, Bayamón, Puerto Rico, 19 September 2023. EFE/Thais Llorca

Drugs and the rise in prisoner deaths in Puerto Rico

By Esther Alaejos

San Juan, Oct. 5 (EFE).- Fentanyl and other drugs are used by prison inmates as an escape from reality leading them to become the main cause of the increase in deaths in Puerto Rico’s prisons, where activists denounce the lack of adequate health and rehabilitation services.

In Puerto Rico, an average of 7,000 people are incarcerated; between 2020 and 2021, 59 deaths of inmates were recorded. This number increased to 94 deaths between 2021 and 2022, and 58 deaths have already been reported since the beginning of 2023, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR).

Independent senator and physician José Vargas Vidot told EFE that, in his opinion, “the increase in deaths is due to opioid overdoses” and that “there are more deaths” than the authorities’ data show.

“Basically, deaths in prisons are due to overdoses,” mainly from fentanyl, an epidemic in the United States, said the senator, who criticizes that prisons “lack adequate rehabilitation, education and health services.”

A DCR report indicates that in the fiscal year 2020-2021, of the 80 deaths accounted for, 22 were due to drug intoxication and 21 to natural causes, while under investigation, there are 14 against 6 cases.

While this document, Senator Vargas Vidot and Dally Cruz, an activist for the rehabilitation of prisoners, all point to drugs as the leading cause of death in prisons, Ana Escobar, Secretary of the DCR, maintains that natural causes are the first cause of death, followed by the use of controlled substances.

Controlling smuggling

Escobar told EFE that combating drug smuggling in the prisons is one of her priorities, and to that end, three machines will be installed with an investment of US$8.3 million.

One will be used to scan people entering the premises, and the other will be used to inspect objects or packages brought into the island’s prisons.

“How long have we been hearing that they are doing everything humanly possible to prevent smuggling?” laments Cruz, an activist with Pro Rehabilitation of Inmates in Puerto Rico. “Unfortunately, I have heard the same stories for 7 or 9 years.”

“If we don’t rehabilitate them, they will continue to die. Their current situation is to use drugs to escape their reality,” says the activist.

Mental health neglected

In addition to poorly treating addiction, another problem not well addressed in prisons is the mental health of those incarcerated.

Senator Vargas Vidot is investigating the death of inmate Shannel Colón, 23, who “had been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia and several aggravating conditions.”

After being charged with vehicle theft, her mental illness was not considered a mitigating factor, and she was not referred to a tertiary mental health facility. She eventually took her own life while in custody.

“The poor management of her case has shed light on mental health protocols in correctional facilities, as well as the understaffing of these urgent services,” the senator laments.

On the other hand, Vargas Vidot denounced the lack of rehabilitative measures since, according to his data, a person who goes to prison on the island “usually goes back up to six times.”

“This is tough. Going to prison is like a permanent sentence,” he adds.

Communication breakdown with family members

Families of deceased inmates are also vocal about the need for more effective communication between the prison system and themselves.

According to a 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, in Puerto Rico, the cause of death in prisons is not reported or is later communicated to families.

Viviana M. Berrios, cousin of a Puerto Rican prisoner who died last year, tells EFE how they spent a week trying to contact him without success after hearing rumors about his possible death.

“I went to the prison, I went to the medical center in Bayamón, but they didn’t give me any information,” said Berrios, whose family only received confirmation of the death a week later and an autopsy report that did not provide a clear explanation of the cause of death.

Berrios insists on ” following a protocol and an effective communication process to deal with a situation and avoid a death.”

It is a distressing situation that cannot be accepted: “Everyone, regardless of their social condition, deserves to have their rights respected,” concludes activist Cruz. EFE

Viviana M. Berrios, cousin of a Puerto Rican prisoner who died in 2023, speaks during an interview with EFE in Caguas, Puerto Rico, 19 September 2023. EFE/Thais Llorca