Deficiencies in Puerto Rico's corrections system require efficient and urgent action. The system's contribution to social peace and its responsibility to provide dignified treatment and opportunities for the productive reintegration of people serving time into society depend on that.
Governor Wanda Vázquez's decision to ask for the resignation of the agency´s heads Erik Rolón Suarez and Irving Otero, aimed at improving the administrative efficiency in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, should result in addressing legitimate claims made the agency's staff, inmates and their families.
It is also important to rigorously investigate violent events during the last four months, which include the deaths of one custody officer and three inmates in different prisons. The investigation into the death of Correctional Officer Pedro Joel Rodríguez Mateo, after being attacked by an inmate on July 31 in an institution in Ponce, is among the issues that raised serious public concern. The officer's alleged attacker was transferred to a prison in Guayama. Shortly afterward, the man, identified by authorities as Luis Sostre Piccinnini, was found dead in his cell.
During this administrative transition, it is equally important to ensure the continuity of medical services, including mental health care and social work. The subcontracted correctional health care company announced that it is contemplating the suspension of more than 50 professionals due to a $14 million budget reduction. The Oversight Board noted that the outgoing Corrections official did not report the need for these funds.
It is imperative to achieve the greatest efficiency in the distribution and use of available public funds, to ensure compliance with essential services to the prison population.
It is a crucial task for the person assuming the direction to optimize resources and develop short and long term innovative measures in the system. The new leadership must ensure compliance with an efficient line of command that results in balanced administrative operations, with accountability for all staff. There must be clear goals of productivity and control of any form of corruption.
Initiatives such as the recruitment and training of custody officers should remain in place. The legislature stated the need to have more staff. They have identified a $26 million allocations from the Corrections budget that would allow for two academies to train 500 officers. That project must be successfully completed, making the greatest effort to gradually improve the salaries of hard-to-fill positions.
Custody officers are asking for new equipment, such as vehicles to conduct surveillance rounds, transport inmates to medical appointments, to court or relocations. Such requests should be taken seriously as the good performance of security personnel ensures stability and an environment that contributes to rehabilitation.
Other essential resources include social workers, whose high workload represents an obstacle to swiftly achieve institutional adjustments. Their reports in judicial proceedings are highly relevant to the agency's fundamental mission of promoting rehabilitation.
Failure to perform services and neglect administrative matters in the Department of Corrections exposes the government to claims and penalties such as those that undermined the image of the penal system for decades and led to pay millions in fines imposed by the Federal Court as part of the Morales Feliciano case.
It is the government´s responsibility to wisely and efficiently use resources intended to provide a correctional system that serves as a deterrent to criminal recidivism while embracing rehabilitation as a strategy for social peace.
Deficiencies in the corrections system must be addressed.