Deadly Chile prison fire puts heat on Latin America's crowded jails

The Chile fire, started by rioting prisoners, has drawn fresh attention to the poor conditions, lack of guards, and gang violence rampant in Latin American jails.

Roberto Candia/AP
The area of the San Miguel prison that caught fire, right, is seen covered in black soot in Santiago, Chile, on Dec. 9. A prison fire set off during a riot killed at least 81 inmates at the Chilean prison Dec. 8, officials said. Flowers hang on the fence in the foreground.

On the morning of Dec. 8, 81 inmates at the San Miguel prison in Santiago died when rioting prisoners set their overcrowded penitentiary ablaze. Among the victims: one young man serving a 61-day sentence for selling pirated CDs.

The tragedy, the worst in Chile’s recent history, startled a nation that was still celebrating the no-holds-barred rescue of 33 trapped miners in October. But prison riots, gang violence, poor living conditions, and corruption run rampant in jails across Latin America.

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Last month, a riot in a northern Brazil prison left 18 dead. Two days later, a fire in a juvenile prison in El Salvador killed at least 16. In one of the more notorious cases, this summer in northern Mexican prison guards were accused of letting out imprisoned gang members, even lending them official guns and cars, to carry out an execution at a nearby party of rivals.

Many critics say prison conditions are a time bomb in Latin America, with space growing tighter as prison populations grow, leaving fewer guards to organize systems inside. Drug laws and the use of preventive jail, they say, have also exacerbated the problem. The tragedy in Chile has leaders and human rights organizations calling for immediate reform, while casting a spotlight on subpar conditions across the region.

“The fire was just the visualization of an endemic problem that hasn’t been looked at. It hadn’t been sufficiently detected and denounced,” says Chilean national public defender Paula Vial.

Overcrowded prisons

The debate over prison reform in Chile comes as the Transnational Institute and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) released a report on overcrowding in prisons in eight Latin American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. The report argues that one contributing factor to crowded conditions is drug policy, which punishes low-level traffickers while doing little to stem drug use or trafficking.

In Brazil’s notorious system, for example, the prison population has doubled to more than 473,000 people from 2000 to 2009. Five years ago, the number of those in jail for drug trafficking represented 10 percent of prisoners. Today that has doubled to nearly 20 percent.

In Mexico, the jailed population nearly doubled from 1998 to 2008, to 219,752 prisoners. That comes as Mexico wages a battle against drug traffickers under the administration of President Felipe Calderón.

But even as Mexico has pushed through judicial reform and even decriminalized some personal drug use, it still contends with a problem common throughout Latin America: the use of preventive jail. Of 226,667 drug-related detentions from 2006 to 2009, only 51,282 faced trial, and of those, 33,500 were convicted, according to the report.

Overall, more than 40 percent of Mexico's prison population is serving time without a sentence. “These systems are conceived as really looking at prison as the solution to the problem of security,” says Ana Paula Hernandez, who authored the Mexico chapter of the drug policy impact report. “They are not looking at what some of the alternatives to prison are.”

That is especially troubling, she says, because the kind of drug violence that is so explosive in Mexico today often replicates itself inside prison cells, with a corrupted system that allows traffickers to continue to operate.

Unsanitary conditions, lax security

Human rights workers across Latin America have also denounced unsanitary conditions, aggravated by overcrowding and a general lack of funds. The Venezuelan Prison Observatory, a nongovernmental organization in Caracas where prisoners' family members hold strikes demanding better conditions, says education in prisons has improved but most promised reforms have been stymied by lack of money.

Venezuela spends $2 per inmate per day, compared with $34 in the US and $83 in Europe, the group said in its 2009 annual report. Inmates lack even potable water, the group said. And while the government cut the number of inmate murders by a third over two years, 1,000 of the country's 33,000 prisoners were wounded or killed last year, the group said.

One of the problems is the scant number of guards when compared to the US, for example, where incarceration rates are among the highest in the world, says Wayne Pitts, a criminology professor at the University of Memphis who has studied prison conditions in Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic. It poses particular problems of control in preventive prison, where petty criminals, like the CD vendor in Santiago, are housed next to convicted drug traffickers and rapists. “Inmate-officer ratios in Latin America are a big problem,” he says.

That is what happened in Chile, where only four guards were patrolling the inside of the San Miguel prison, where 1,900 are housed. The Chilean Congress formed a committee this week to investigate the San Miguel fire and the president promised reform, including $460 million toward building new prisons and improving conditions. The government will “change the root, hopefully forever, of our penal system,” President Sebastian Piñera said this week.

'We need alternatives to incarceration'

His call comes as groups such as Human Rights Watch demand immediate reform to the system, in which the death rate from violence is rising, says Jose Maldonado, president of the National Penal Officers Association in Chile. Twenty guards have died on the job in the country in the past two decades, and 170 prisoners have suffered serious injuries this year.

But he is skeptical that profound change will arrive. “These 81 have revived consciousness today, but we don’t know if it’s just hype or if we’ll see a needed reform of the penal code,” says Mr. Maldonado. “We need alternatives to incarceration for crimes of negligence and less serious crimes.”

Ms. Vial agrees, but says those fighting for prison reform ultimately come up against tough-on-crime rhetoric. “The government doesn’t want to raise any questions about its public safety policies,” she says. “It’s not just an issue of resources. Not just about building more prisons or improving the ones that exist.

We also need to rationalize how we fill them. If there isn’t a policy making it possible to respond to minor crimes with alternatives to prison, it will be hard to have results.”

Even if the government does take steps, she says, it is a long road ahead. “It’s too big a ship to turn around quickly. … It can’t be solved all at once."

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