Inside a Panamanian prison: Portrait of a flawed legal system

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Inside a Panamanian prison: Portrait of a flawed legal system
Inmates are seen at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama February 3, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmate Miguel Lopez, who is HIV positive, cooks in the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 27, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An inmate stands in a provisional cell at the Pavilion No. 6 assigned to foreigners at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama November 13, 2015. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A Bible is seen at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 29, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Magazine pages are seen on the ceiling of a cell at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 29, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmate Alvis Javier sleeps in his cell inside the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama November 12, 2015. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmates line up for food provided by the prison in Pavilion No.2 in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 27, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Inmates spend time inside their cell at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 29, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmate Miguel Anguel Quiros poses for a photograph with his cat at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama November 12, 2015. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An inmate couple kiss and joke at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 29, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Inmate Angel Hurtado, 23, (C), laughs as he spends time with with his cell mates at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama February 3, 2016. Hurtado said: "I regret my mistakes. I'm here because of a robbery and this is not a nice place." Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmates play a board game at the Pavilion No.6 assigned to foreigners at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 29, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmate Robert Maximiliam, a Polish-Canadian, holds his rescue mockingbird outside his cell at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama February 5, 2016. Maximiliam said: "I'm a healer. I use plants as a medicine to helps other. I'm here by mistake they accuse me of drug trafficking, but I'm innocent, someone put drugs in my bag at the airport." Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An inmate looks at his toilet in his cell at the Pavilion No.6 assigned to foreigners at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama November 13, 2015. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A Dutch inmate Petrus sits in his provisional cell at the Pavilion No.6 assigned to foreigners at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama November 13, 2015. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A handmade cooking stove is pictured at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 27, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmates walk back to La Joya prison after spending time outside the prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 29, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmates spend time at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama February 3, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmate Robert Maximiliam, a Polish-Canadian, stands at his allotment at the Pavilion No.6 assigned to foreigners at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama February 5, 2016. Maximiliam said: "I'm a healer. I use plants as a medicine to helps other. I'm here by mistake they accuse me of drug trafficking, but I'm innocent, someone put drugs in my bag at the airport." Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An inmate washes himself in a courtyard in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 27, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmate Ubaldo Marcus, 36, shows his secondary school certificates inside his cell at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 29, 2016. Marcus was sentenced for drug trafficing. He moved to the transgender gallery after a dispute about money in his previous gallery. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An inflatable doll is shown by an inmate in one of the pavilions at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 29, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TEMPLATE OUT.
Clothes hang on the fence at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama February 5, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmates listen to another prisoner, a lay preacher, outside the Pavilion No.6 assigned to foreigners at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City November 13, 2015. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmates work out at the Pavilion No.6 assigned to foreigners at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama November 13, 2015. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An inmate reads the Bible as he stands inside his cell at the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 29, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmate Alvis Javier (L), poses for a photograph as another prisoner looks from his bunk inside the transgender gallery in La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 27, 2016. Javier is still waiting for his sentence after six years in prison. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmates Chant religious song at the Pavilion No.2 in La Joya Prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama February 5, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A cross is painted on a wall inside La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 27, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmates chat at La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 27, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Inmates push food supplies inside La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 27, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An inmate (L) and a dog are seen behind bars inside La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama January 27, 2016. Inmates of La Joya prison on the outskirts of Panama City are housed in makeshift cells amid heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention. Many prisoners in the Central American nation languish for years without being sentenced. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "PANAMA PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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PANAMA CITY, April 13 (Reuters) - As Panama reels from outrage at legal loopholes that help the world's wealthy hide their cash, inmates at the capital's La Joya prison are paying a heavy price for flaws elsewhere in the Central American nation's justice system.

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Housed in makeshift cells because of heavy overcrowding, living in grimy conditions and with limited medical attention, many prisoners languish for years without being sentenced.

A 2014 report by Open Society Foundations found Panama had the world's highest pre-trial detention rate as a percentage of the country's wider population.

"There is no limit to pre-trial detention" in practice, said Juan Carlos Arauz, a Panamanian lawyer and vice president of the National College of Lawyers. He said more than 60 percent of the prison population has not been sentenced.

Under rules being phased out by September, pre-trial detention was limited to the minimum sentence for which a detainee could be liable for a given crime. But in practice, authorities have not always complied.

In the new system being implemented, pre-trial detention will be capped at one year and detainees can apply for bail, with any time served in pre-trial detention counting toward their eventual sentence.

Panama was thrust into the limelight earlier this month when documents leaked from a local law firm exposed offshore financial dealings of the world's rich and famous.

Since then, France has said it will blacklist Panama, Iceland's prime minister has stepped down over the revelations and Panama's government has vowed to share tax information with other nations to prevent evasion.

But problems with Panama's legal system run much deeper.

Prisons have sometimes "life-threatening" conditions, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. State Department, which cited deadly prison fights and too few guards.

"The only thing I want is to be handed my sentence," said Alvis Javier, a Panamanian who has been imprisoned without a conviction for six years in La Joya, on the outskirts of Panama City, for suspected drug possession.

Javier is studying for a secondary school certificate and lives in a cell in the prison's transgender unit, where inmates draw curtains over their bunks for privacy. One inmate at the prison showed off a life-size, full-breasted inflatable sex toy.

Carlos Fuentes, who was jailed for falsifying his ID card, has been stuck in La Joya, Spanish for "The Jewel," for almost 2 years awaiting sentencing. "There are a lot of us here in this situation," he said.

The government has been moving foreign prisoners to a new prison, La Nueva Joya, to cut down on overcrowding, prisoners said.

Gabriel Pinzon, director of Panama's prisons system, said the cellblock at La Joya that foreign prisoners have vacated would be repaired and remodeled.

"We see some factors related to the volume of cases, which at times impacts the judicial (process), which we are currently trying to combat," he added, referring to pre-trial detention times.

A reform approved in 2008, which takes effect in Panama's major urban areas in September, will give defense attorneys a more equal playing field and will limit pre-trial detention to up to a year, Arauz said.

However, inmates detained under the prior system will have to have their cases processed under the old rules, he noted.

Nevertheless, the new rules will eventually help cut down on overcrowding and pre-trial detentions, Arauz said, pointing to parts of Panama where they have already been implemented. (Writing and additional reporting by Elida Moreno, Alexandra Alper and Enrique Pretel; Editing by Simon Gardner and Dan Grebler)

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