Report: Prisons in Honduras are Dangerous, Violent and Corrupt
by Matt Clarke
When a February 2012 fire at a prison in Comayagua, Honduras killed 361 prisoners after guards abandoned their posts – leaving the prisoners to die in their cells – there was hope that the resulting international attention focused on the prison crisis in the Central American nation might lead to reforms. [See: PLN, July 2013, p.52]. However, such reforms have failed to materialize.
Take, for example, the prison at San Pedro Sula (SPS), which the Associated Press was allowed to tour in May 2012. The prison, built for 800, houses over 2,000 prisoners. And the guards were not in control of the overcrowded facility – the prisoners were.
When the AP made arrangements to visit SPS, they didn’t seek authorization from prison officials; rather, they needed permission from the prisoner in charge, Noe Betancourt. Betancourt even provided a security team of eight prisoners to escort the journalists during their tour of the facility.
The prison is essentially an autonomous town complete with women, children, businesses and a marketplace. What the AP reporters didn’t see was any guards. During the day, guards do not go past a painted yellow line in the outer section of the prison, and prisoners do not cross it from the inner areas of the compound. That line is called “the line of death,” according to a report released in August 2013 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (ICHR). [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.56].
“Internal control of the prisons has been ceded into the hands of the prisoners themselves,” the report stated, noting that prisoners control all 24 correctional facilities in Honduras.
The ICHR report said there are two padlocks on the prison gate: the guards lock the padlock on the outside and the prisoners lock the one on the inside. Honduran authorities admitted they “have no power to change anything.”
The system of prisoners running the prisons is not unusual in Honduras; rather, it is the standard model according to the report. And inside the prisons either side can literally get away with murder.
No guards were prosecuted for abandoning prisoners to a fiery death at Comayagua in 2012. Likewise, when the prisoners at SPS were fed up with their leader, Mario Enriquez, and killed him along with 13 of his followers two weeks after the fire, no charges were filed.
The prisoners had put up with Enriquez’s brutal abuse, but when he sharply increased the fees they must pay for everything from food and cell space to permission to run a business, and his followers raped a visitor at the facility, outraged prisoners cut off Enriquez’s head, removed his heart and fed it to his dog. Then they killed the dog.
The ICHR report said prison overcrowding was primarily responsible for the huge death toll in the fire at SPS. Overcrowding is rampant in Honduran prisons, with antiquated buildings housing, in at least two facilities, twice as many prisoners as they were originally designed to accommodate. The report also listed other significant concerns, including a “lack of appropriate, safe physical installations, deplorable health and hygiene conditions, failure to provide adequate food and drinking water and the lack of adequate medical care.”
The report further detailed a black market economy in many Honduran prisons, where prisoners buy and sell food, clothing and household items in marketplaces that are not regulated and subject to corruption.
At San Pedro Sula, for example, the prison yard is the site of a huge bazaar that includes “barbers’ shops, cafeterias, bakeries, sales of fruit and food of all kinds, sales of medications and cloth, tailoring workshops, a cobbler’s shop, a leather workshop, carpentry, a cabinetmaker’s workshop, crafts, manufacture of mirrors, billiard tables, games tables and many soft drink dispensing machines.”
The Honduran government admitted there is little it can do, calling prisoners’ control of the facilities a “necessary evil.”
“This system, as was observed, is accepted by the prison authorities as the only viable way of maintaining order and stability between them and the prison populations, and the ‘coordinators’ [prisoners with special privileges] are considered collaborators and even allies of the authorities.”
The ICHR report said the “coordinators” have a wide range of responsibilities, including applying punishment as discipline, setting the prices that prisoners must pay to live in cells, establishing pricing for food and resolving any conflicts.
“Above all,” the report noted, “the ‘coordinators’ serve as spokesmen or liaisons with the prison authorities, and are really privileged prisoners who exercise a degree of decision-making power within the prisons, often sharing the benefits with the prison authorities.”
Government officials acknowledge that allowing prisoners to take charge of the prisons is a major factor in terms of corruption. Funds collected by the leader of the prisoners at SPS, for example, are shared with the prison administration, which claims to use the money to pay for prisoner upkeep. Costs range from $50 for the worst cells to $750 for a clean, safer cell. One prisoner pays $25 a week for permission to run a restaurant.
According to prison officials, the money is necessary to operate the underfunded prison. SPS administrator Hugo Hernandez said he receives about $250 per prisoner per year from the government’s budget and, without the $6,000 a month that is his share of the fees, he would not have funds to pay for maintenance, gas to transport prisoners to court, supplies for the prison hospital or sufficient food.
“For some it’s corruption, but for us it’s the only way to keep the system from breaking apart,” noted assistant prison director Carlos Polanco.
On August 3, 2013, one day after the ICHR report was released, clashes involving gang members at a National Penitentiary prison in Tamara left three prisoners dead and at least 15 people injured, including three guards. The facility houses over 3,300 prisoners.
Following the violent disturbance, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo announced he was sending in military troops to regain control over the facility. In a statement, Lobo said the goal of putting soldiers in charge of the prison was to “end the reign of criminals in our prison system, which has done so much damage to our society.” [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.56].
Sources: Associated Press, CNN, www.usatoday.com, www.insightcrime.org
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