Honduras prisons are hotbeds of organized crime

A recent report highlighted critical problems within Honduras' prisons, where the prevalence of gang violence and deplorable conditions suggest that the penal system does nothing to rehabilitate offenders.

Following a visit to the country in December 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) found that detainees often exert more power than the prison staff. The IACHR also found cases of men and women sharing cellblocks and military weapons used in riots.

The ensuing report, entitled "Situation of Human Rights in Honduras," (pdf) draws attention to the dire shortcomings and ill-advised initiatives of Honduras' prison system.

Prison population up 25% in 3 years

In November 2014, 14,805 people were being held in Honduras prisons, a 25 percent increase from the 2012. This is especially noteworthy as Honduras' prison population was relatively steady in the decade leading up to 2012, the report stated. The vast majority of inmates are men: only 4.5 percent of Honduras' prison population are women.

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Overall, the prison system is incapable of housing this number of inmates, as the country's 25 jails currently only have approximately 10,500 slots. An estimated 11 percent of the prison population sleeps on the floor.

Another significant increase is the number of people held in pre-trial detention. While in 2012 the proportion of prisoners who were awaiting trial was 48 percent, by 2014 this was 54 percent, or over 8,000 people. The IACHR stated that there was a failure to separate those convicted of a crime from those still awaiting trial.

 

Self-governance and AK-47s

With authorities unable to exert sufficient control in Honduran jails, violence remains rampant. The report stated that from 2006 to 2012, 641 violent deaths occurred in the country's prisons, an average of 92 people per year.

 

In Honduras, 85 percent of prisons have "uncontrolled 'self-governance' systems," in which inmates referred to as "coordinators" exercise internal control independently of the prison staff.

Violence in the prisons range from "homicides with firearms, to attacks [...] with explosives and military weapons," the report reads.

In one example, an exchange of gunfire in San Pedro Sula prison on March 11, 2014, left three inmates dead and over 30 people wounded, including eight military police. Authorities later confiscated "high-caliber weapons […] including AK-47 assault rifles, as well as bulletproof vests, drugs and alcohol, cell phones, and other banned items."

Such violence is closely linked to what the IACHR considers to be the "primary structural deficiency" in Honduras' prisons: the autonomous rule of inmates.

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In Honduras, 85 percent of prisons have "uncontrolled 'self-governance' systems," in which inmates referred to as "coordinators" exercise internal control independently of the prison staff. Coordinators reportedly beat and punish other detainees with the consent of prison authorities, collect funds for the maintenance of the facility, and run commercial activities.

During its visit to the San Pedro Sula prison, the IACHR said that its delegation was only allowed to enter certain areas with the permission of the "general coordinator" of the penitentiary.

Security forces: militarization and torture

Honduras' prisons remain controlled by inmate "coordinators," even as prison security has become more militarized. The IACHR delegation observed that army troops were being used for security tasks in prisons, including youth detention centers.

High-ranking military officers are reportedly assuming prison management positions and many directors of the larger jails are members of the military, despite this being in violation the National Prison System Act.

Security forces are also accused of torturing and mistreating prisoners. Six out of 10 inmates were allegedly subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment during their arrest in certain cities between December 2013 and 2014, according to information from the Center for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture (CPTRT). The National Anti-Extortion Force was reportedly responsible for the most serious torture cases.

Nevertheless, of the 253 reports of torture brought to the Human Rights Ombudsman between 2009 and 2014, only 15 percent led to an indictment.

Women, LGBT, children at risk

The report draws attention to the risks of men and women living together in some facilities. When visiting a San Pedro Sula prison, the IACHR found that although there was a specific cellblock designated for female prisoners, a separate cellblock housed 26 women with 300 men, and another housed one woman with 54 men.

Fellow inmate coordinators were responsible for managing the mixing of genders in the prison.

This situation appears to have affected LGBT prisoners the hardest in San Pedro Sula, where they are more vulnerable given "their resistance to participating in the dynamics of submission and control exercised by male prisoners." The LGBT inmates are known to be housed separately or with the mentally disabled prisoners, and suffer sexual and physical violence from fellow detainees.

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The IACHR also reported that young inmates at juvenile detention centers lack educational activities or medical care, and are only allowed 1.5 hours of outdoor recreation per week. In one center the IACHR visited, much of the facility had still not recovered from a violent riot in 2012.

InSight Crime Analysis

The excessive use of pre-trial detention has clearly contributed to the chaos and dysfunction in Honduras' prison system. This has been the case since 2009, when a penal reform greatly limited alternative measures to imprisonment for suspected criminals. Along with tough "Mano Dura," or "iron fist" policies -- in which many suspects were arrested on scant evidence of "association" with gangs -- this has helped fill the country's prisons to breaking point.

 

In exchange for gifts and large amounts of money, officials allow the flow of contraband to continue and deliver military-grade weapons to inmates.

Not only has this put a huge number of non-convicted civilians in potentially life-threatening conditions, it can also lead to the formation of organized criminal groups, according to lawyer Linda Rivera, the First Deputy at Honduras' National Commission for Human Rights (Comisionado Nacional de los Derechos Humanos - CONADEH). These gangs fight amongst each other for control of the prison and its illegal economies, for example by "charging detainees for occupying favorable spaces … [with the] complicity of prison guards."

This violent climate has made prisons the most dangerous places in Honduras, with an average death rate of 780 per 100,000 detainees between 2004 and 2014.

A particularly worrying issue is that of juvenile detention centers, where there have been recent reports of brutal gang-imposed control, assassinations and dismemberments. Inhumane conditions and the failure to rehabilitate problematic youths have created an environment that is perhaps even more hostile than the streets of Honduras. In fact, most cases of intra-gang violence occur in juvenile detention centers rather than adult prisons, according to Rivera.

Prison authorities have tried to keep these conflicts in check by dividing gangs into separate facilities or cellblocks, but this method risks allowing prison gangs to consolidate their power. Instead, the IACHR report offers alternative solutions, suggesting that detainees organize their own cultural, sports or religious societies rather than relying on gang-based associations.

Corruption among prison workers has grown as the penal system becomes more and more overwhelmed and remains incapable of supervising its workforce. Rivera tells InSight Crime that prison staff -- as well as the military officials that were introduced to bring order to the system -- are often inept, inexperienced and prone to misconduct. In exchange for gifts and large amounts of money, officials allow the flow of contraband to continue and deliver military-grade weapons to inmates.

Honduras' various attempts at repairing its crumbling prison system have seen little success. Firstly, widespread militarization has failed to bring security to prisons. On the contrary, military officials' lack of professional training risks sparking human rights abuses.

Secondly, the state has attempted to increase prison capacity by building controversial mega-prisons, one of which was inaugurated in early 2015 in El Porvenir municipality and can house up to 2,000 inmates. However, the IACHR report found that that such mega-prison-projects can be difficult to manage.

"Smaller prison centers tend to be less violent, safer, and less susceptible to control by criminal groups," the IACHR report added.

Arguably, merely building more prisons is more of a band-aid solution. As the report suggested, a more effective approach would be boosting crime prevention strategies, strengthening the justice system and tackling excessive pre-trial detention, as the report suggests.

Without such initiatives, and with Honduras set on reinforcing its iron fist approach, national prisons will continue to be breeding grounds for more organized and dangerous criminal gangs.