SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – In a prison called Hope, there is little of it to go around.
Inmates at the La Esperanza penitentiary here cram into “the caves,” their name for the suffocating spaces underneath bunk beds, desperate for a place to sleep. Others sprawl out on the floor under a thicket of exposed electrical wires in sweltering, dirty cells, until they can come up with the US$35 or more they will need to buy space on a bunk from fellow prisoners. In these tight quarters, it has become a flourishing trade.
The 19 prisons in this country were built to hold 8,000 people. These days, 24,000 are stuffed into them, leaving inmates to string hammocks from the ceiling or bed down on the floor of a library that is too full of prisoners to hold any books.
Such overcrowding is not uncommon in Latin America. But after a grisly prison fire killed 360 inmates in Honduras in February and a massacre killed 44 in Mexico less than a week later, prison administrators and investigators are warning that the problem has sunk to new depths, spurred by the growing power of criminal groups and the mounting demand to stop them.
Public frustration with murders, robberies, rapes and assaults has led to law enforcement crackdowns that emphasize arrests over prosecution, swelling prisons and jails sometimes two, three or four times beyond capacity with inmates who have typically never gone on trial, much less been convicted.
At a prison in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Santos Vicente Hernandez clambered out of a battered wheelchair and dragged himself across the filthy floors to use a bathroom. He was paralysed during a shootout and arrested for allegations of murder 12 years ago, yet he is still awaiting trial, he said. At his penitentiary, nearly two-thirds of the 2,250 inmates – in a prison built for 800 – have not been formally convicted, government statistics show.
“I’d rather be dead than here,” Hernandez said.
Venezuelan officials said the number of prisoners awaiting sentencing or trial in their country had dropped to about 50 per cent, although independent monitors put it at 66 per cent to 70 per cent. Across Honduras, 53 per cent of inmates have not been tried or sentenced, according to government officials there. In Guatemala, the figure is 54 per cent; in El Salvador, it is 30 per cent; and in Panama, it is 61 per cent, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, a research group in England. (In the United States, it is 21 per cent, the group says.)
Human rights observers have repeatedly sounded alarms about the crowding and deteriorating conditions. After the fire in Honduras, believed to have been caused by a match or cigarette left accidentally on bedding, the office of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights lamented an “alarming pattern of prison violence in the region,” listing a series of cases in Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina and Panama.
Hearings are held. Reports issued. Promises made.
But still, “We will be talking again in two months because there will be another incident and more,” said Santiago A. Canton, the executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has visited 20 prisons in the past decade and issued reports on several. “It is getting worse, but it has been bad for a long time.”
The prison world is often an upside-down, alternative universe with little public or political will to right it.
“Our budget does not have a lot of resources,” said Nelson Rauda, the director of prisons in El Salvador. “If the choice is to build a children’s hospital or a prison, which do you think is going to get done?”
STUCK IN SQUALOR
The cycle of disaster, death and denouncement repeats with a macabre monotony.
More than 100 inmates died in an electrical fire in 2004 at the prison where Hernandez is held. Little has changed since. Sparks still fly from wires high above the courtyard when it rains. Beams remain bent and disfigured. Asked what prison officials had done to improve conditions since the fire, a group of guards laughed.
“We are waiting for a new prison,” said Jorge Rubio, a top official.
Prison, of course, is supposed to be unpleasant. But investigators complain that necessities like water come and go in several prisons in the region and that infections, rashes, respiratory distress and other maladies are widespread, with little treatment.
Prisoners sell their food, clothes – sometimes their bodies – to earn money for bed space, soap and toothpaste.
Salvadoran officials said they were seeking to rehabilitate more prisoners, but the effort often falls short. Classes are few at La Esperanza and other prisons, where inmates sometimes take it upon themselves to teach.
“We have no books or nothing, but I do my best,” said Marvin Flores, 37, a deported felon who spent half of his life in Los Angeles and is serving time for a gang-related extortion. He teaches English to fellow inmates.
In the past decade, Honduras, El Salvador and other countries have increased penalties for gang crimes, sometimes applying a broad definition of membership, including having certain tattoos.
Honduran legislators in February passed a law doubling the prison sentence for extortion to at least 20 years, and roundups by the police in El Salvador continue, with the recent arrests of more than 50 young men suspected of being gang members who committed murders, extortion and illegal assembly.
Inside penitentiaries, some governments, like El Salvador’s, have taken steps like adding security cameras, blocking signals from smuggled cellphones and reducing visiting hours to curtail contraband, but a shortage of well-trained, uncorrupted guards remains a severe problem, officials said.
It is perhaps most evident in Venezuela, where assault weapons, grenades and drugs circulate freely at some prisons. Inmates in the notorious prison La Planta in the capital, Caracas, openly carry assault weapons, maintaining their own ruthless brand of order in the absence of any other authority.
Antonio Sulbaran, 28, jailed on a murder charge, holds sway over his section of the prison, meting out privileges and justice.
“I see to their well-being,” Sulbaran said of the inmates who live under him. “Someone has to do it so that there will be respect. Otherwise, this would be chaos.”
FILLED AS FAST AS BUILT
Even when guards are supposedly in control, violence and corruption often reign. In the recent massacre in Mexico, guards freed members of one powerful criminal group, Los Zetas, so they could go to another cellblock and kill 44 members of a rival gang. After the episode, Mexico’s interior minister, Alejandro Poire, highlighted a plan to build eight federal prisons this year.
But without change in the justice systems or anti-crime policies, new penitentiaries often quickly swell beyond their capacity.
Colombia pushed prison construction several years ago and significantly reduced crowding but President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office in 2010, began a crackdown on crime that led to a flood of arrests and harsher sentences. Prison populations have ballooned in the past year, and overcrowding is again acute.
El Salvador has taken tentative steps to reduce its overcrowding and stepped up supervision of prisons. A bank of 30 flat-screen television screens in the prison agency in San Salvador, the capital, beams images from every penitentiary in the country in an effort to document trouble.
But as one official put it, “Nothing is going to change overnight.”
He was right. A week later, three inmates were killed in a prison brawl.