In Honduras and beyond, incarceration is derailing justice

The Honduras prison fire that killed almost 360 inmates echoes failures in prison systems across the Americas.

Honduras fire
Guards kept cells locked during a recent prison fire, causing inmates to asphyxiate or burn to death [Al Jazeera]

Paris, France – The fire that killed close to 360 inmates at the Comayagua State Penitentiary echoes deep failures in prison systems beyond Honduras. The Comayagua incident, the most tragic to date, was not unexpected. Rather, it is emblematic of a larger systemic crisis that calls for comprehensive, structural reforms of the entire justice system in the region.

On February 14, penitentiary guards kept cells locked, letting inmates asphyxiate or burn to death as the fire spread. Firefighters took over 30 minutes to be let onto the premises, while a nearby military base never sent anyone to help in rescue efforts. Outside the prison, family members who tried to make their way into the prison to find their loved ones were kept out by shots and tear gas.

 Honduras jail visit exposes poor conditions

The senseless tragedy lies not solely in the unnecessary loss of life, but in the fact that many of victims should not have been in prison in the first place. At least half the prisoners had not been convicted or even charged with any crime and, according to social worker Claudio Saenz, many had been awaiting release for years.

Many of those imprisoned were being held only as suspected gang members because Honduras’ anti-gang laws, in violation of international law, permit imprisonment simply for having a tattoo. Many of those left to die locked in their cells were thus first and foremost the victims of an unfair, inefficient and discriminatory judicial system.

The prison system in Honduras is dilapidated and massively overcrowded. Equipped for 6,000 prisoners, it currently holds double that number. Taken together, overpopulation and precarious infrastructure exacerbate the frequency and impunity of police brutality. The so-called negligence of police forces echoes prior prison tragedies, notably the 2003 massacre at El Porvenir, where Honduran police – not the fire – killed close to 68 inmates.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo suspended top officials, notably the national prison system director, Danilo Orellana, while the government declared a period of mourning and installed tents for family members awaiting news from forensic teams. The UN called for an independent investigation and a reform of the penal system. As well-intentioned as these initiatives may be, they will not solve the problem – neither in Honduras nor elsewhere. Comayagua is the tip of the iceberg of a much larger and deeper failure of the prison system across the Americas.

Mass incarceration

Overcrowded prisons are not only a problem in Honduras. Comayagua’s prison had a population that was twice its capacity. Meanwhile, the prison system in the wealthy US state of California is overcrowded by a similar ratio. In 2011, the US Supreme Court declared that California’s overcrowded prisons violated the US Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which forbids “cruel and unusual punishments”. The 27-year-old inmate who just died while on a hunger strike to protest conditions behind bars at the Corcoran State Prison in Kings County, California is only the latest casualty in an untenable system.

The overcrowded prison system is entwined with an increasingly inefficient and violent drug war that the US has been exporting south. Harsh sentencing has resulted in a rapidly expanding prison population, yet high levels of incarceration have not increased public security.

To the contrary, prisons are universities of crime that often serve only to strengthen street gangs. The expansion of transnational gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha exposes the failure of the current incarceration strategy as much as it points at the lack of viable alternatives of schooling and gainful employment available to the youth in so many urban areas.

In the US, the rapidly expanding prison population has fuelled the privatisation of prisons, reaching worrisome levels. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of private prisons in Arizona increased 285 per cent between 1999 and 2010. While creating an economic incentive for putting (and keeping) people in jail, privatisation is blurring the line between justice and profit. It also creates opportunities for corruption, as politicians receive campaign donations from corporations running these prisons. 

Overpopulation and excessive sentencing are also the consequences of an out-of-control system of preventive arrests without charges and delayed trials. The Global Campaign for Pretrial Justice reports, for instance, that about half of the prisoners in Guatemala and Argentina have not been sentenced. In Paraguay, this figure is over 70 per cent.

For whom the bells toll

The Comayagua tragedy is deeply rooted in systemic discrimination, as are prison systems in the US. The winning documentary at the Sundance Film Festival this year, “The House I Live In”, tackles the racialisation of the War on Drugs, while the official New York Police Department stop-and-frisk numbers reveal how entrenched racial discrimination is. In 2011, 87 per cent of those stopped by police were black or Latino. The low correlation between stops and actual arrests confirms bias and harassment: Nine out of ten persons stopped were not arrested.

Abusive incarceration has turned the justice system into a criminal source of injustice.”

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander contends that mass incarceration in the name of the War on Drugs is a new version of Jim Crow laws, which affect the majority of African Americans in certain US cities. Tanya Golash-Boza has written on the human costs of the criminalisation of immigration, which is filling up jails across the US.

Detentions and deportations have increased six-fold over the last decade. As people are arrested and await deportation behind bars, families are torn apart, with thousands of children sent to live in foster care. Federal data shows that the US deported over 46,000 parents of US-citizen children in the first half of 2011 alone.

The bells seem to toll for the same people across the hemisphere. The victims of Comayagua resemble the 81 inmates who died in a 2010 fire in San Miguel prison of Santiago, Chile. Their faces resemble the 111 inmates summarily executed in their cells at the Carandiru Penitentiary in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1992.

One of the popular sayings at Carandiru held that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a sewing needle than for a rich man to end up behind those bars. Brazilians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil sang about the intersection of poverty and race in their song “Haiti”, suggesting that Carandiru’s 111 inmates were all so poor they were almost black.

Millions of poor men of colour are cycling in and out of jails. Felons often do not recover their civil rights (in law and in practice) even after serving out their sentences. Worse, many never make it out, stuck in discriminatory judicial systems or as victims of fires and other tragedies. Abusive incarceration has turned the justice system into a criminal source of injustice, with all-too-predictable “accidental” deaths as the all-too-common result.

Angela Davis, who has been denouncing the prison-industrial complex for years, recently called upon social movements, notably feminism, to join the abolition movement of our century – that of the prison system.

The tragedy in Comayagua will not be redressed by building fire-proof facilities. The question is who decides the rules of the game, how collectively (or arbitrarily) we decide where insecurity lies, and whether our judicial and incarceration systems are designed to prevent and protect us all from violence – or to punish and oppress targeted social groups. 

Manuela Picq has just completed a position as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples’ rights in the Amazon.

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