Document Abuses in Drug Treatment Centers

The Open Society International Harm Reduction Development Program is calling for proposals to document abuses in drug treatment centers in Latin America.

In many countries in Latin America, people who use drugs are held in locked hospital wards or in private centers offering “drug treatment.” They may be subject to experimental or non-proven therapies, physically and sexually assaulted, and receive harsh punishments that often constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, or even torture. In many cases they are detained against their will, or because they have been declared “incapacitated” at the request of a family member. Criteria for entrance and exit into the locked facilities are often unclear to those inside.

Human rights groups have decried drug detention centers. In 2012, 12 United Nations agencies issued a statement [PDF] calling on “states that operate drug detention and rehabilitation centers to close them without delay and to release the individuals detained.” The Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Special Rapporteur on Health have each published reports calling for abusive drug treatment centers to be closed, and for voluntary, evidence-based treatment to be available in the community. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has criticized compulsory drug treatment in Brazil.

Privately run centers have received less attention from human rights watchdogs and technical assistance providers. Latin America is a region where these centers—often run by religious institutions—proliferate. There has been some documentation of abusive centers in Mexico and Guatemala [PDF], of fires that killed dozens trapped inside centers in Peru, and attention to centers in Ecuador. Generally, though, the experiences of people who use drugs (or others deemed in need of moral rehabilitation, including in some countries those with mental illness, lesbian, gay, or transgender individuals, etc.) has not been highlighted.

The mission of this set of grants is to call attention to abuses in locked drug treatment centers in Latin America, in order to press governments to establish mechanisms for monitoring abuse, to regulate facilities offering drug “treatment” or “rehabilitation,” and in countries where involuntary treatment is allowed by law, to assess experiences of those subjected to such treatment.

Eligibility Criteria

We encourage nonprofit organizations and academic institutions to apply. Groups should have experience of working in collaboration with people who use drugs, and should be able to demonstrate the ability to effectively document experiences of abuse in drug treatment centers while ensuring the safety and anonymity of informants. Previous documentation work is preferred. While documentation may occur in one city, proposals to gather information from multiple cities are preferred.

Purpose and Priorities

The goal of these small grants is to support documentation of abuses in drug treatment centers in Latin American countries through production of a short overview describing estimated numbers of such facilities and regulatory mechanisms (if any), and to produce accounts of detainees’ experiences through writing/interviews, photographs, video, and voice recordings. Materials gathered through this process may be compiled in an electronic report and shared widely with partner organizations, and decision makers. Accounts may be adapted to share with UN treaty bodies as relevant. Participants will be expected to publicize their findings in their country through events such as press conferences, debates, or displays. They may also be asked to share their accounts at regional conferences and convenings, and as blogs on the Open Society Foundations website.

Each grantee will be expected to submit two elements:

  1. A brief summary of the mechanisms of involuntary or locked ward treatment in a given country (describing mechanisms of entry, exit, number of centers, legal standing of centers, government responsibility for regulation and mechanism for same), with citations for sources of information. If relevant and available, please annex related articles, television stories or other media. 
  2. Accounts of human rights violations in drug treatment centers in a given country. These could take the form of an overview of abuses in these settings (please see “Guatemala’s Compulsory Rehabilitation Centers” [PDF] for an example) or of interviews with someone with direct experience of abuse (please see Treated with Cruelty: Abuses in the Name of Drug Rehabilitation for an example). If you choose to submit interviews, we will expect you to submit five for consideration.

All submissions, whether overviews or interviews, should include information about:

  • Who runs the center(s);
  • How people end up in the center(s);
  • Others detained there (what types of drugs used; what other conditions are cause for detention);
  • What conditions are like inside the center(s) (including living conditions, doctor involvement, abuses and punishments, forced labor and supposed treatment);
  • Criteria for exit from the center;
  • Any information about government monitoring or sanctions for abuses .

If possible, grantees should also submit video, voice recordings, or photographs to accompany their written pieces.

Work products may be submitted in English, Spanish, or Portuguese. All materials will be expected by August 1, 2014.

Grantees will be expected to arrange at least one event to disseminate findings in their country of focus. These events would take place by December 2014.


Interested applicants should send a letter of inquiry by April 25, 2014, in English, Spanish, or Portuguese to Denise Tomasini-Joshi: [email protected]. Letters of inquiry should be no more than four pages and should include:

  • Information about your knowledge of abuses in drug treatment centers in the country in question. Specifically, please detail how you came to know about abuses in drug treatment centers, or how you plan to access people with direct experience of abuse.
  • A method for collecting photos, video, or voice recordings to accompany your written contribution.
  • A plan for keeping informants safe and for ensuring informed consent for participation, and for photos or video, for obtaining releases to allow use of material.
  • Ideas for helping to disseminate the final report and multimedia piece, including through events such as exhibits and debates, or by engaging local and national officials or media. Please note specific occasions for such engagement.

Though not required, favorable consideration will be given to organizations that can provide:

  • Examples of previous written reports or multimedia pieces;
  • Examples of successful advocacy with government officials;
  • Connections to influential media;
  • Examples of previous collaborations with people who use drugs;
  • Instances of previous presentations at conferences or media interviews.

Some applicants will then be invited to submit full proposals for funding. A full proposal will be due by May 15, 2014, and will need to include a budget and detailed work plan.

Grants will be for $10,000, with a $3,000 stipend for in-country travel where necessary; additional money may be provided for dissemination events if warranted. The grant period will be June 1 through December 1, 2014.