It is now almost exactly a year since a fire at Comayagua prison in Central Honduras killed more than 350 inmates. The causes of the blaze remain unknown, with theories varying from an electrical short-circuit to the accidental burning of a mattress, or a clash between rival gangs inside the jail.
A few days later there were violent scenes at the morgue in the capital Tegucigalpa when a crowd broke in and tried to remove the body bags containing what they hoped were the remains of their loved ones. In the event, many of the bodies were so badly burned it took several weeks to identify them by means of DNA samples.
Since then, the Lobo government has extended a ‘state of emergency’ in the prison system. It is planning to spend US$59 million to build a new prison facility near the burnt-out Comayagua jail. But Alba Mejia, deputy director of the Centro de Prevención, Tratamiento y Rehabilitación de las Victimas de la Tortura y sus familiares (CPTRT), has her doubts. ‘This new facility ‘will house some 4,000 inmates and will be near the centre of the town, which has caused a lot of concern among the inhabitants of Comayagua’.
The fact that this state of emergency was renewed for a further year in January 2013 gives some idea of the challenge facing the authorities. In March 2012, after the Comayagua fire, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Argentine Juan Méndez, singled out Honduras as being the worst in Latin America. In general, he said ‘there is not a single country in Latin America that can boast of the way it treats its prison population’.
This view was reinforced by a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which visited Honduras in April 2012. After inspecting many of the country’s 24 penal institutions, the members of the commission reported that it had found grave deficiencies ‘in terms of overcrowding, the lack of adequate and secure facilities, deplorable hygienic and health conditions, the inadequate provision of food and drinking water; insufficient medical attention, and a lack of work or educational programmes.’
Last year, The Economist magazine reported that ‘In Honduras 97% of the prison budget goes on warders’ salaries and prisoners’ food, leaving very little to keep the prisons in sanitary and safe conditions. Even so, the government pays just 13 lempiras (US$0.66) per inmate per day on food.’
Much of the problem lies in overcrowding. In Honduras, the maximum prison population is intended to be some 8,000 inmates. Its prisons currently accommodate more than 12,000 people. The Comayagua jail was designed to hold 250 prisoners; more than 850 were being housed there on the night of the fire.
This situation is made even worse by the fact that up to half of those in jail in Honduras are being held while awaiting a trial for alleged offences. Given the slowness and corruption endemic in the Honduran justice system, this can take up to several years. In response, the Lobo government is now switching responsibility for prisons from the Ministry of Security to the Interior Ministry, and efforts are being made to promote the prevention of crime rather than merely locking people away.
In the meantime, the young remand prisoners learn from the convicted criminals. Jails are ‘schools of crime,’ according to Migdonia Allescas, director of the NGO Observatorio de la Violencia en Honduras. ‘We have to work on prevention rather than concentrating on reacting and trying to control the violence. We have to offer young people more opportunities to study and work, to improve our system of education, health and security, and to promote the culture of peace.’
Many of the convicted prisoners belong to the maras, or violent gangs. Not only do they continue to run their illegal drugs businesses from behind bars, but they clash with rival gangs inside jail, and effectively control life in the institutions.
The prison guards are often unwilling or unable to put a stop to this violence inside the institutions. They are poorly paid –and in recent months have not been paid at all, as the Lobo government faces bankruptcy. This leaves them open to corruption in the form of bribes or leaving the inmates to police the jails themselves. Weeding out these corupt officials is one of the measures that Alba Mejia of the CPTRT sees as essential if things are to change. She also outlines other urgent needs: ‘Work has to be provided for the inmates: that’s what they’re constantly demanding. And many prisoners could be released on humanitarian grounds, while trials are speeded up for those held on remand. Then build more prisons that fit our needs, not megaprisons that will just again become dumping grounds.’
All these factors mean that the prison system in Honduras is always a ‘time bomb waiting to explode’, as the government has admitted. The Comayagua fire was not the first such tragedy in the recent history of Honduras’ prisons: in 2003 68 prisoners died in the ‘El Porvenir’ prison farm in La Ceiba; and in 2004, some 108 inmates died when one of the cells caught fire in San Pedro Sula.
In this context, the last word should go to the delegation of the IACDH. At the end of their visit they concluded that the prison situation in Honduras ‘is contrary to inherent human dignity and the basic humanitarian principles of a civilised society.’ Since their April 2012 visit, things have only got worse.