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The World’s Biggest Prison

by Ed Lyon 

In February 2023, officials in El Salvador began admitting detainees to a new prison that is the largest in the world.

The prison, which has its own utilities, is isolated on 56 acres in the middle of a 410-acre plot of thick forest. The cells are spread over eight “pavilions,” each consisting of two cellblocks. Each cellblock, in turn, holds 32 of the 80-prisoner cells.

But what Salvadoran prison officials call a cell would be a dormitory in most U.S. prisons. Each of the new prison’s 512 cells holds 80 prisoners. Cells are ungenerously equipped with two sinks and two toilets – but at least there is running water and flush capability.

Each cell covers about 1,076 square feet, only slightly smaller than the average two-bedroom apartment in the U.S., according to 2018 government statistics. Beds, or bunks, consist of iron sheets without mattresses. In fact there are no mats or linens at all. There is no reported recreation available, either. Prisoners will be spending a great deal of their time in their “iron sheet cabin” beds.

For this humongous prison, holding 40,960 prisoners, a guard force of just 650 is tasked with providing security and keeping peace. That’s just one guard for every 62 prisoners. In the U.S., the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) aims to maintain one guard per 15 prisoners.

The MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs operated largely with impunity, until an alleged attempt to extract more concessions from the government with a weekend of violence in March 2022 backfired spectacularly. President Nayib Bukele declared “war” on the gangs and issued a month-long “special exception” to their constitutional protections as citizens – since re-issued over a dozen times. Nearly 63,000 gang members have been arrested, and Bukele plans to fill the new prison with them.

Sources: Tico Times, U.S. Inst. of Peace