Inmate’s Lament: ‘Rather Be Dead Than Here’
Women pack themselves onto and even under bunks at El Salvador's Ilopango prison, where overcrowding is typical of the region.
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
Published: March 13, 2012
Inmates at La Esperanza penitentiary here 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 a thicket of exposed electrical wires in sweltering, dirty cells, until they can come up with the $35 or more they will need to buy space on a bunk from fellow prisoners. In these tight quarters, it 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.
Such overcrowding is not uncommon in Latin America. But after a grisly prison fire killed 360 inmates in Honduras last month and a massacre killed 44 in Mexico less than a week later, prison administrators and investigators are warning that the problem has sunk to new depths, spurred by the growing power of criminal groups and the mounting demand to stop them.
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.
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, he said. At his penitentiary, nearly two-thirds of the 2,250 inmates — in a prison built for 800 — have not been formally convicted, government statistics show.
“I’d rather be dead than here,” Mr. Hernández said.
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. Across Honduras, 53 percent of inmates have not been tried or sentenced, according to government officials there. In Guatemala, the 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, the group says.)
Human rights observers have repeatedly sounded alarms about the crowding and deteriorating conditions. After the fire in Honduras, believed to have been caused by a match or cigarette left accidentally on bedding, the office of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights lamented an “alarming pattern of prison violence in the region,” citing cases in Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina and Panama.
Hearings are held. Reports issued. Promises made.
But still, “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.”
The prison world is often an upside-down, alternative universe with little public or political will to right it.
“Our budget does not have a lot of resources,” said Nelson Rauda, the director of prisons in El Salvador. “If the choice is to build a children’s hospital or a prison, which do you think is going to get done?”
Stuck in Squalor
The cycle of disaster, death and denouncement repeats with a macabre monotony.
More than 100 inmates died in an electrical fire in 2004 at the prison where Mr. Hernández is held. Little has changed since. Sparks still fly from wires high above the courtyard 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.
“We are waiting for a new prison,” said Jorge Rubio, a top official.
Prison, of course, is supposed to be unpleasant. 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.
“We have no books or nothing, but I do my best,” said Marvin Flores, 37, a deported felon who spent half of his life in Los Angeles and is serving time for a gang-related extortion. 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 last month 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 last week of more than 50 young men suspected of being gang members who committed murders, extortion and illegal assembly.
Inside penitentiaries, some governments, like El Salvador’s, have taken steps like adding security cameras, blocking signals from smuggled cellphones and reducing visiting hours to curtail contraband, but a shortage of well-trained, uncorrupted guards remains a severe problem, officials said.
It is perhaps most evident in Venezuela, where assault weapons, grenades and drugs circulate freely at some prisons. Inmates in the notorious prison La Planta in the capital, Caracas, openly carry assault weapons, maintaining their own ruthless brand of order in the absence of any other 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. 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 this year about 77 prisoners were killed, most shot to death. If that pace holds up, the system could come close to the 560 prisoners that a watchdog group, Venezuela Prison Observatory, said were killed last year, including 41 at La Planta.
The government disputed the group’s figure but did not provide its own data for last year.
Inmates at La Planta chat on cellphones, 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.
Ms. Varela, who took over the prison system in July, said she was working to reduce weapons and drugs in prisons.
“What is there is there, and my problem is to take it out and clean the prisons of all these substances and objects that are inside,” Ms. Varela said.
Filled as Fast as Built
Even when guards are supposedly in control, violence and corruption often reign. In the recent massacre in Mexico, guards freed members of one powerful criminal group, Los Zetas, so they could go to another cellblock and kill 44 members of a rival gang. After the episode, Mexico’s interior minister, Alejandro Poire, highlighted a plan to build eight federal prisons this year.
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, said Elias Carranza, director of the United Nations Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders.
Colombia pushed prison construction several years ago and significantly reduced crowding, according to official figures. But the gains were short-lived.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office in 2010, began a crackdown on crime that led to a flood of arrests and harsher sentences. Prison populations have ballooned in the last year, and overcrowding is again acute.
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 opened in February. A similar program for men will open this month, sending hundreds of prisoners nearing the end of their terms out of overcrowded jails.
“There was not much to do in the other prison,” said Blanca de Palazos, 46, finishing a six-year term for selling contraband cigarettes. “But here there is plenty to do, and most of us like growing food and being productive.”
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.
Randal C. Archibold reported from El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala. Reporting was contributed by Javier C. Hernández from San Pedro Sula, Honduras; William Neuman and María Eugenia Díaz from Caracas, Venezuela; Gene Palumbo from San Salvador; and Jenny Carolina González from Bogotá, Colombia.
A version of this article appeared in print on March 14, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Inmate’s Lament: ‘Rather Be Dead Than Here’.