Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Terrible prisons (Part 1)

There are many prisons around the world that are horrible places to put human beings into, even if they are deserving of punishment. This article is part of a series in which I will attempt to describe the prisons that can only be classed as terrible prisons.

Part of the problems with respect to prisons in Central America and northern South American is overcrowding of their prisons. Such overcrowding is not uncommon in Latin America. 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 of the crimes they were arrested for.

In Guatemala, the overcrowding figure is 54 percent; in El Salvador, it is 30 percent; and in Panama, it is 61 percent, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, a research group in England. (In the United States, it is 21 percent.) Venezuelan officials said the number of prisoners awaiting sentencing or trial had dropped to about 50 percent, though independent monitors put it at 66 percent to 70 percent.

In 1980 while I was having supper with the minister of justice in Caracas, Venezuela, I told him of a Canadian who was in the prison in Caracas for eighteen months and still hadn’t been charged as of then. I also told him of another man who spent ten years in that prison waiting for his trial and when he finally got his trial, he was acquitted of the crime he was charged with. The minister said to me, “I realize we have a problem with our justice system.” It appears that for the past 30 years, nothing has really changed in the Venezuelan justice system. They still have that problem.

El Salvador Prisons

Many inmates at the La Esperanza penitentiary (sometimes referred to as “Hope”) cram into “the caves,” their name for the suffocating spaces underneath bunk beds, desperate for a place to sleep. Others sprawl out on every inch of floor under many exposed electrical wires in sweltering, smelly, dirty cells, until they can come up with the $35 or more they will need to buy space on a bunk from other prisoners. In such tight quarters, selling bunk space 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 now too full of prisoners to hold any books anymore.

Human rights observers have repeatedly sounded alarms about the crowding and deteriorating conditions. After the fire in Honduras, the office of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights lamented an “alarming pattern of prison violence in El Salvador and other nations in that region.

“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 last decade and issued reports on several. “It is getting worse, but it has been bad for a long time.”

Nelson Rauda, the director of prisons in El Salvador said, “Our budget does not have a lot of resources. If the choice is to build a children’s hospital or a prison, which do you think is going to get done?”

More than 100 inmates died in an electrical fire in 2004 at one of the prisons in El Salvador. Little has changed since. Sparks still fly from wires high above the courtyard of that prison 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. Jorge Rubio, a top official said, “We are waiting for a new prison.”

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 enough 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.

Marvin Flores, 37, a deported felon who spent half of his life in Los Angles and is serving time for a gang-related extortion said, “We have no books or nothing, but I do my best.” 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 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 arrests of more than 50 young men suspected of being gang members who committed murders, extortion and illegal assembly. That new law and the arrests and convictions of criminals will invariable cause an overflow of prisons in that country’s prison system.

El Salvador has taken tentative steps to reduce its overcrowding. One afternoon, a group of female prisoners hoisted sharp farming tools — not in a fight, but to tend to crops at a prison farm that finally opened up. A similar program for men will was also opened, sending hundreds of prisoners nearing the end of their terms out of overcrowded jails and onto prison farms.

El Salvador has also stepped up supervision of prisons. A bank of 30 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.

Venezuela Prisons

In 1980 when I accepted an invitation by the Minister of Prisons to visit the La Planta Prison in Caracas and then entered it, I had the distinct feeling that I was walking through a pigsty. The smell was overwhelming. The prisoners were crammed into cells in which they slept elbow-to-elbow on concrete floors, bathed from the same water bucket in a corner, and relieved themselves in plastic bags which they then they tossed out from a barred window onto an open-air patio. Breakfast is weak coffee and a small piece of bread; lunch is an unappetizing bowl of spaghetti or rice and beans. There is no dinner.

Human Rights Watch/Americas, a Washington-based group contends that the jails in Venezuela, along with those in Brazil, are the worst in the hemisphere.

It is perhaps most evident in Venezuela, where assault weapons, grenades and drugs circulate freely in some prisons. Inmates in the notorious prison La Planta, openly carry assault weapons, maintaining their own ruthless brand of order in the absence of any other official authority.

“We guard ourselves,” said Loibis Fuentes, 37, who is serving a murder sentence at La Planta. “We are in charge of our own security, cleaning and everything else.”

Antonio Sulbarán, 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,” Mr. Sulbarán said of the inmates who live under him. “Someone has to do it so that there will be respect. Otherwise, this would be chaos.” He had an automatic pistol tucked in his waistband and a hand grenade — they have been used in prison attacks — clipped to his belt. More than a dozen armed inmates flanked him.

Battles break out in prisons in Venezuela. In 1996, as many as 244 prisoners were slain in Venezuelan prisons, either by guards or other inmates, according to Justice Ministry data. Inmates have shot, burned, stabbed and beheaded rivals. Weapon sweeps by guards turn up not only homemade knives, but automatic handguns and on occasion, grenades. Many walls were pocked with bullet holes. Iris Varela, the minister of prisons in Venezuela, provided data showing that in the first eight weeks of one year about 77 prisoners were killed, most shot to death by other prisoners. If that pace holds up, the system could come close to the 560 prisoners that a watchdog group, Venezuela Prison Observatory, said were killed the previous year, including 41 at the La Planta Prison.

Inmates at La Planta chat on cell phones, navigate Facebook and Twitter on laptops, cuddle with girlfriends, dine at makeshift restaurants complete with white tablecloths, and shop at stands selling candy and cocaine. At a prison in Uribana in western Venezuela, the inmates organize knife fights called “coliseos” — named for the Colosseum — for entertainment and betting, leading to several deaths.

In March 2008, Venezuelan Minister of Justice Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, announced Monday a plan to implement a new penitentiary model, with the aim of humanizing the prison system throughout the country.

However in 2011, with the a stench of urine infused with marijuana in the air, inmates of Venezuela’s La Planta prison brandish machine guns, rifles and grenades while enjoying music blaring from a 6-foot high stack of speakers. Guards are nowhere to be seen as other inmates sharpen knives and carry pistols. One even keeps hold of his gun as he plays soccer on a soccer court within the prison walls. In June 2011, it took some 5,000 soldiers nearly a month to quell violence in one overcrowded prison in Venezuela that killed 22 prisoners.

President Chavez said that he was appalled at the conditions and disgusted with guards who, in one incident, refused to intervene as a man was raped and murdered in a cell above them. When he came to power in 1999, Chavez promised to revamp the country’s prison system, which he described as “the most savage in the world, even worse than many dictatorial regimes.”

Mexican Prisons

Prison conditions in Mexico can be extremely poor. In many facilities food is insufficient in both quantity and quality, and prisoners must pay for adequate nutrition, clothing and bedding from their own funds. Many Mexican prisons provide poor medical care, and prisoners with urgent medical conditions may receive only a minimum of attention. Foreigners who are incarcerated in Mexico are sometimes forced to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars in ‘protection money’ to fellow prisoners and even pay them rent for their cell as another form of extortion by other inmates.

Just after 1 a.m., on the 19th of February 2012, the guards at the State Prison in the city of Apodaca outside the northern industrial city of Monterrey, opened the doors, and 30 men climbed up to guard tower No. 6. One by one, they slipped down ropes to waiting vehicles. Just after the men made their escape into the surrounding mountains, more guards opened more doors. This time, they let inmates belonging to the Zetas criminal gang surge from Cellblock C into Cellblock D, where their rivals in the Gulf Cartel were sleeping. Over the next hour, Nuevo León State officials say, 44 prisoners — all believed to be part of the Gulf Cartel — were bludgeoned, beaten and stabbed to death.

Only two hours after the events began that Sunday did jail officials at the Apodaca Prison alert state officials and the army. “By the time we had the call for help, it was already past three in the morning, two hours after the escape and the fight,” said Jorge Domene, the state security spokesman, describing the massacre. “By the time help arrived in response to the call, almost all the deaths had taken place,” he said, indicating that prison security cameras showed that more than 200 inmates had participated in the killings.

Officials in Nuevo León State said the jailbreak and the massacre had been carried out by the Zetas, the violent gang of drug enforcers who have turned against their former bosses in the Gulf Cartel and spread their reach over large parts of northern Mexico and the Gulf Coast.

The escape was carried out through an elaborate plan that enabled the 30 or so inmates to escape in just 20 minutes, with the killings taking place in the immediate aftermath when a group of Zetas inmates were allowed to pass, armed, to the block housing members of the rival Gulf Cartel.

The Zetas appeared to have the authorities at the Apodaca prison under their control. Investigators continued to question security guards Tuesday, and Mr. Domene told a radio interviewer that as many as 16 guards and officials had been implicated, including the prison’s warden, Gerónimo Miguel Andrés Martínez, and its chief of security, Óscar Deveze Laureano. At least nine guards confessed to aiding the escape and the massacre directly and admitted that they had received $780 to $1,560 a month from the Zetas. They and the warden are under arrest.

In May 2009, 53 prisoners, many of them Zetas, walked out of a jail in the state of Zacatecas as guards looked on. In December 2010, 151 prisoners escaped from the jail in Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Texas. In July that year, the director of a prison in the northern city of Gómez Palacio was accused of allowing gangs out of the prison to commit murder-for-hire jobs using prison guards’ weapons and vehicles.

Gunmen sprayed bullets into a family birthday party in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on July 18th, 2010 in which 17 teenagers were killed and 20 wounded in the massacre. The gunmen were members of a drug cartel and were also prisoners who were released temporarily on the orders of the prison warden. They were also given vehicles and guns by the prison guards to do the killing. When they finished their murderous task, they then returned to the prison. The warden (a woman) and the guards were arrested.

After the latest episode, Mexico’s interior minister, Alejandro Poire, highlighted a plan to build eight new federal prisons that year. The violence and corruption in Mexico’s overcrowded prison system have burst into public view with regularity since President Felipe Calderón started his crackdown on drug gangs more than five years ago.

Of the 30 men who escaped, 25 were convicted of federal crimes, said the Nuevo León governor, Rodrigo Medina. Among the escapees was Óscar Manuel Bernal Soriana, known as the Spider. Officials said he was a local Zeta leader with a reputation for bloodthirstiness who may have planned the jailbreak and ensuing massacre.

In his first comments on the Apodaca incident, Mr. Calderón said that the prison systems in some states were “in crisis” and that the federal government was building new prisons, “an effort that has not been made in 20 years in Mexico.”

Honduras Prisons

Overcrowded prisons are the norm in Honduras. Many exceed their capacity by hundreds of inmates and safety standards are rarely followed. Nationwide, Honduras (a country of about 8 million) has capacity for about 8,000 prisoners but had nearly 12,000 incarcerated as of 2010, equating to 40% overcrowding, The bunks are sometimes five, six, seven tiers high, with the lowest person on the totem pole sleeping underneath the bunk on the bottom. The prisons are also unsanitary, seething with tension and violence.

A fire started at 10:15 at night by an inmate who screamed, “We will all die here!” and purposely then set his mattress on fire, tore through a severely overcrowded Honduran prison, in the central town of Comayagua, burning and suffocating inmates in their locked cells and killing as many as 356 of them on February 16th 2012 in one of the world's deadliest prison fires in a century. The blaze spread within minutes, killing about 100 inmates in their cells as firefighters struggled to find officials who had keys. Other guards fired their guns repeatedly to keep screaming trapped inmates from escaping. One prisoner, Rubén García, said, “When the fire started we called out to the people with the keys, but they didn't want to open our cells. They killed them! They yelled, ‘Die you dogs, it's good that you die!’”

Not all the guards were like that. A prisoner identified as Silverio Aguilar told HRN Radio that he first knew something was wrong when he heard a scream of “Fire! Fire!” He then said, “For a while, nobody listened. But after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a guard appeared with keys and let us out.” He added that there had been 60 prisoners packed into his cell.

Some 475 people escaped and 356 are missing and presumed dead, according to Hector Ivan Mejia, a spokesman for the Honduras Security Ministry. The prison housed prisoners convicted of serious crimes such as homicide and armed robbery.

The prison sits in the middle of irrigated fields and several large ponds, and appears to be comprised of eight buildings set closely together. Beyond the fields are the city streets of the town of Comayagua. A narrow dirt, tree-lined road leads toward the prison, passing a soccer field on the property. There is an open, dirt prison yard within the central compound. A few blocks from the prison, Comayagua bustles with fast-food restaurants, hotels and gas stations.

The Comayagua prison was built in the 1940s for 400 people but held more than 800 prisoners watched over by only 100 guards. In 1972, I visited a jail in San Francisco that housed at least 400 inmates and there were only two guards on duty at night. That was because the inmates were all locked in their individual cells at night.

The fire in the town of Comayagua was the third major incident in Honduran prisons in recent years. In 1994, a fire sparked by an overheated refrigerator motor in an overcrowded Honduras prison killed 103 prisoners. In 2003, 61 prisoners were killed in a fire at a prison in La Ceiba. A 2004 prison fire at the San Pedro prison killed 107 imprisoned gang members in a state prison north of the Honduran capital. A fire a year earlier at a nearby facility killed 70 gang members.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo issued a plea for international assistance in carrying out a thorough investigation 'to determine beyond any doubt what led to this tragedy and determine responsibility. In all likelihood, the inmate who started the fire is probably dead. There are two direct causes for the fire. The first being that the inmate was permitted to have matches and the second being that the mattresses in the prison are not fireproof.

Honduras has one of the world's highest rates of violent crime, and its overcrowded and dilapidated prisons have been hit by a string of deadly riots and fires in recent years. Officials have repeatedly pledged to improve conditions, only to say they don't have sufficient funds. Perhaps the American government can assist them instead of spending millions of dollars on armaments for the Pakistan armed forces.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said on national television that he had suspended the country's top penal officials and said he would request international assistance in carrying out a thorough and transparent investigation.

Honduran authorities have repeatedly pledged to improve conditions but human rights groups say little has been done in the country of 7.6 million people, a major transit route for drugs headed from South America to the United States.

The U.S. State Department has criticized Honduras for “harsh prison conditions” and violence against detainees however, in 1930, a prison fire in Ohio killed at least 320 prisoners. It was set by several inmates who later felt guilty about so many inmates dying so they committed suicide.

The Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla told reporters, “We have to do something even though we don't have the money.” The U.S. sent help from a base at Soto Cano Air Base, about 15 minutes away. U.S. Military Staff Sgt. Bryan Franks said smoke was no longer visible above the city, and that his team included four vehicles made up of a 10-man medical team, security guards and firefighters.

Lucy Marder, the chief of forensic medicine for the prosecutor's office, said she believed the death toll would rise and it would take at least three months to identify victims, some burned beyond recognition, because DNA tests will be required.

Honduras has 24 prisons, 23 for men or both genders, and one exclusively for women. In December, the total prison population was 11,846 of which 411 were women.

At a prison in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Santos Vicente Hernández clambered out of a wheelchair and dragged himself across filthy floors to a bathroom. He was paralyzed in a shootout and arrested for murder 12 years ago, yet he is still waiting to get a trial. At his penitentiary, nearly two-thirds of the 2,250 inmates — in a prison built for 800 — have not been tried or convicted of the crimes they were arrested for according to government statistics. Across Honduras, 53 percent of inmates have not been tried or sentenced, according to government officials there.

Prison administrators and investigators are warning that the problem with respect to prisons in Honduras has sunk to new depths, spurred by the increasing number of criminal groups and the mounting demand by the people of that country to stop them from getting bigger.

Columbia Prisons

The prisons in that country are a disgrace. In the La Tramacua Prison, the inmates lack the minimum sanitary conditions because there is no water, the place is constantly surrounded with excrement from the prisoners who, not having sanitary services to use such as toilets, throw bags of their excrement outside the prison and even on the lower floors of the prison. In order to have water for drinking, bathing, and washing their clothes, the inmates resort to filling containers and carrying them away tied to their belts. This procedure is done during the 10 minutes in which water arrives at the jail, although due to the low pressure on the upper floors, those prisoners on those floors do not have the opportunity to stock up with water that often. The smell one senses from before arriving in the prison is a stench that makes one feel sick. The flies are everywhere and the heat is unbearable. Both the men and the women suffer the greater part of the day lying on the floor, since the cement benches are not sufficient for all. The women prisoners represent only about one per cent of the population at La Tramacua, but receive no consideration or treatment specific to their status as women.

Colombia pushed prison construction several years ago and significantly reduced crowding, according to official figures. Have conditions improved significantly since then? Indications are that they have not, and the greater capacity seems to have been motivated by a surge in arrests and the exercise of social and political control rather than with the alleviation of overcrowding. That is because President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office in 2010, began a crackdown on crime that led to a flood of arrests and harsher sentences. For this reason, prison populations in Columbia have ballooned in the last year, and overcrowding is again an acute problem.

The growth of the prison population has been phenomenal since the inception of the new US/Colombian prison program. One Ministry of Justice document from December 2007 shows a prison population of 63,603. An INPEC document from January 2010 puts the population at 76,471. Just over three months later, an article in the Colombian daily, El Tiempo said that there were 106,000 prisoners in Columbia’s prisons. If these figures are all true, then the increase in the prison population has already exceeded the new spaces being built. So much for the stated purpose of relieving prison congestion.

Prison administrators and investigators in Columbia are warning the government that the problem has sunk to new depths, spurred by the growing power of criminal groups and the government’s mounting demand to stop them.

The majority of prisons in Columbia are under the command of high-ranking members of the military and police forces, who are either retired or active, and they lack the experience or the skills that are necessary to manage a prison.

My thoughts on these prison problems

Prison, of course, is supposed to be unpleasant because incarceration deters not only some offenders but also some of those potential criminals who are even thinking of committing a crime. But there is a difference between prisons being unpleasant and prisons being pigsties and dangerous to boot.

The UN blames “overcrowding, a lack of access to basic services, judicial delays and excessive pre-trial detention” as among the causes which have worsened conditions in detention facilities.

Other countries, too, have started prison building booms, including Brazil and Chile. But without change in the justice systems or anticrime policies, new penitentiaries often quickly swell beyond their capacity, according to Elias Carranza, director of the United Nations Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders.

Inside penitentiaries, some governments, like El Salvador’s, have taken steps like adding security cameras, blocking signals from smuggled cell phones and reducing visiting hours to curtail contraband, but a shortage of well-trained, uncorrupted guards remains a severe problem.

I have visited a number of prisons in the province of Ontario, Canada and I am extremely impressed with the structures and the programs of the more modern ones. In one prison where the men are sex offenders, the 220 prisoners are placed in six self contained units in which they have coffee and snacks available to them even after their suppers. All of the units provide dormitory accommodation for adult, male inmates serving sentences of no more than two years, less a day. Even though the units are dormitories, there is a certain amount of privacy for each of the men when they are sleeping. The men are able to participate in sports and they all receive special medical and psychological treatment for their illnesses. And of course, they are given nourishing meals.

I don’t have any idea as to when the prisons I have written about which are in dire need of improvement will provide better treatment for their prisoners but I think that it will be quite a long time before that comes about. We must not forget that although imprisonment may deter some criminals, it will make others become anti-social and those are the kinds of prisoners who when they are released back into society, express their fury for the treatment they had in prisons, on innocent victims whom they later, rob, rape, injure, maim and/or kill.

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