Thursday, February 16, 2012

Prison Blaze Kills Hundreds

Fire in Honduran Prison Kills More than 350 Inmates:

COMAYAGUA, Honduras — The bodies of the inmates, shirtless and blackened by soot, lay on the ground in neat rows, belying the chaos from which they emerged.

Outside the fence, hundreds of relatives rushed the gates of the burned-out prison on Wednesday, anguished and anxious for any word, clashing with soldiers and the police when they could not get in. As a prison officer stood on a balcony, reading out a roll call of the dead and survivors from a handwritten list, faces in the crowd turned away in tears.

It was one of the worst prison fires in recent years in Latin America, with a death toll surpassing 300, most of the victims choking to death in their cells awaiting a rescue that never came. Guards with the keys were nowhere to be found, rescuers said. Some inmates bashed their way through the roof to escape, and kept running. They are now fugitives.

As the article notes, Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, and is a country rife with corruption.
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, according to the United Nations. The country’s institutions are still recovering from a 2009 coup. The police are committing assassinations. Criminal groups are extorting and kidnapping almost at will. The Peace Corps has withdrawn over concerns about crime. And the nation’s prisons are so overwhelmed that in 2010 the government declared a state of emergency in the system, acknowledging that nearly half of its prisons did not meet the minimum requirements for penitentiaries.
And like most countries, they use their penal system to mete out brutal, tough punishments, stuffing prisons beyond capacity in order to hold the line on violence.
Honduran prisons, like many in Central America, are notorious for overcrowding and violence, a problem made worse as drug gangs have overrun the nation and set up staging grounds to move cocaine from South America to the United States.

While Latin American prisons in general are susceptible to fires and rioting, the problem in Honduras is particularly serious, according to human rights groups and other monitors.

The country’s 24 prisons house nearly 13,000 inmates, but the capacity is believed to be around 8,000, and in 2010 the government declared its state of emergency in the system. Óscar Álvarez, then the security director, said nine of the facilities were so inadequate that they did not meet the minimum standards for a prison.

In 2003, a riot in a Honduran prison left 68 inmates dead, 51 of them shot, stabbed, beaten or burned to death by police officers, soldiers or prison staff members, according to a report by the government, which promised to revamp and improve the system.

But the next year, a fire in another overcrowded prison, believed to have been caused by a short circuit, killed more than 100 prisoners, most of them gang members.

Though these incidents draw the usual investigations and human rights groups to the fore, the causes for over-crowding are not just related to political corruption. The Hondurans are, with backing from the U.S., prosecuting their own "War on Drugs," often with the same tragic consequences. To wit:

The victims in the latest fire were burned to death or asphyxiated in their cells, prison officials told local news media. Several were taken to hospitals, and television reports showed severely injured inmates partly clad and writhing on stretchers.
Even worse? Most of them had not been charged with a crime.

Most of the prisoners who died in Honduras' prison fire had never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted, according to an internal Honduran government report.

More than half of the 856 inmates of the Comayagua farm prison north of the Central American country's capital were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members, according to a report sent by the Honduran government this month to the United Nations.

Prisoners only needed to have a wrong tattoo to be incarcerated under the strict Honduran anti-gang laws, according to the report, which was obtained by the Associated Press.

Cold comfort for the grieving families, and just another reminder of the insanity our "war on drugs" has spread globally.

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