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Fire at Overcrowded Chilean Prison Kills Over 80 Prisoners

by Matt Clarke

At around 5:30 a.m. on December 8, 2010, prisoners set fire to mattresses, blankets and clothing during a fight at the San Miguel prison in Santiago, Chile. The fire grew, killing at least 81 prisoners and severely injuring 21 others. The facility was designed to hold 700 prisoners but housed around 1,900 at the time of the blaze.

“The conditions that existed inside this prison are absolutely inhumane,” said Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, while visiting an emergency medical facility where surviving prisoners were being treated for smoke inhalation and burns. He called Chile’s prison system “a disgrace that effects all of us,” and noted that he had inherited the problem of overcrowded prisons from previous administrations.

Although Piñera denied it, people who were waiting in line to visit prisoners when the fire broke out said it took firefighters 40 minutes to respond. Several prisoners stated that a prisoner had placed an emergency call to the fire department using a cell phone after guards failed to report the fire. They also claimed government officials initially prevented firefighters from battling the blaze.

“They wouldn’t let the firefighters come in. The riot police came in first and began to beat us, and later the firefighters came in,” said an unidentified prisoner in a cell phone call that was broadcast on the state-controlled television.

Firefighters said over 200 prisoners were relocated within the prison away from the blaze, but 147 others remained in the area of the fire. Many of those prisoners died due to asphyxiation or burns. Paula Vial, Chile’s national public defender, said most of the prisoners who died were “low-risk inmates,” citing the example of Bastian Arriagada, 21, who was serving a 61-day sentence for selling pirated CDs.

Pedro Hernandez, director of the Chilean prison guards union, said there were only five guards on duty when the fire broke out. President Piñera claimed there were six guards in towers and 26 on the prison’s perimeter. A special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the “enormous calamity,” which was the second mass-casualty fire at the prison. In the previous fire, seven prisoners died and 20 were injured on December 11, 2000.

“Chile’s prisons are a human waste dump. No one cares about these people. Judges sentence them and don’t care where they are locked up. Public defense attorneys forget about them after trial, and Congress keeps approving new laws to create new crimes and increase sentences,” said Chilean Congressman Hugo Gutiérrez, a former human rights lawyer.

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters,,,

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