El Salvador's prisons are chronically overcrowded

A plague of fungal skin diseases, untreated deadly infections, constant threats of tuberculosis epidemics, people fed with their own hands, extreme overcrowding and children locked up with their mothers. This is what the human rights observers reported during the first few months of the extraordinary measures implemented across prisons for El Salvador's gang members.

The Attorney General's Office is the only institution that has access to these prisons under these extraordinary measures. The government has decided to deny access to the public, including the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"The fact that they are served food in their hands is...inhumane. The overcrowding...all in the same cell for 24 hours! It's like...the torture facilities of the past. You would think that all of that was over. You would think that Hitler was a thing of the past. Once the doors are opened, what will we see?"

The statement was from Raquel Caballero, of El Salvador's Attorney General's Office for Human Rights (Procuradora para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos - PDDH), who was left speechless as she tried to describe what she saw in the prisons where the government's extraordinary measures have been implemented.

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of El Faro. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

In April 2016, the government implemented extraordinary measures for seven Salvadoran prisons where only gang members are detained. The aim was to isolate certain prisoners with the understanding that they were the momentum driving gang criminality. In order to do this, the government eliminated family visitation; confined prisoners to their cells 24 hours a day; halted the delivery of hygiene products like soap, toilet paper and toothpaste; suspended judicial proceedings and restricted maximum-security prisoners from being released to hospitals.

The measures, which were approved by the heads of all political parties, have been enacted for a year with the possibility of extended. The government is authorized to extend the current state of emergency for prisons month by month.

The report from the PDDH -- an report that was compiled during the last months of the previous administration -- describes some of the most serious conditions that the office witnessed from April to July this year.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

In the Chalatenango prison, which houses the gang members of the MS13, the PDDH tells the story of a prisoner who did not receive medical attention despite having a bullet lodged in his hip, and another prisoner who was also unable to receive medical treatment despite suffering from hypertension, diabetes and obstruction of a coronary vein. Authorities denied medical attention to yet another prisoner who was paraplegic as a result of a bullet to his spine and who had a colostomy, that is to say he defecates through a segment of his intestine that releases though an opening in his abdomen. According to the report, this last prisoner suffers from "multiple skin lesions due to a lack of healing."

In the San Francisco Gotera prison in Morazán, where gang members of the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios are detained, the PDDH found an outbreak of tuberculosis which the authorities had failed to address. In Ciudad Barrios in San Miguel, a prison exclusively for the MS13, a prisoner with tumors in his head was unable to receive medical attention; nor was medical attention given to another who had plastic intestines that had expired a year ago; nor for the prisoner with a testicular hernia, nor for the prisoner with cancer, nor the hemophiliac; not even for the prisoner with muscular dystrophy, acute poliomyelitis and osteoporosis.

The report highlights the historic nature of the prisons' poor conditions, which has only been exacerbated by 24-hour lock-up and lack of access to cleaning products and clean water.

In a November 4 interview, an ex-convict recently released from the San Francisco Gotera prison spoke about his experience with the extraordinary measures: "In sector one, where there are about 350 people, there was only one bathroom, which was clogged, so people made a small pile in the cell, and shit started accumulating there, piling up until water dropped down to take it away. Someone sleeps next to that little pile...In that sector, you have to line up to use the little pile even when you don't need to use the bathroom because if you wait until you have to pee, you'll wet yourself in the line. Outside of the cell there are various bathrooms, but we can't use them because we're locked up."

The ex-convict assured that there are cells that are in better condition, like the smallest of that prison, known as "the little cell." There, he explained, are beds for 28 people, even though there are 130 detained there. With any luck there is a hole to urinate and defecate into: it's only a hole in the ground, which at one point connected to a toilet bowl that was there but had been removed by order of the Police Maintenance Unit.

He also told how, at the time, some everyday items became luxury goods: "He has a glass or a plate? Oh man, what a blessing!" The PDDH report confirms his story: "In general no prisoner had receptacles with which to receive food. The only thing they had were plastic bottles which had been cut down the center or pieces of plastic bags from which food would spill. The majority received food in their bare hands."

Other prisoners with whom El Faro has spoken recount how some of their cellmates have had hysteric episodes as a result of the permanent lock-up and severe overcrowding.

On June 16, Cojutepeque prison was closed as it had become known as the worst of the all of the Salvadoran prisons. The inmates -- all from the Sureño faction of the Barrio 18 -- were transferred to Quezaltepeque and Izalco prisons. Nevertheless, that transfer, according to the PDDH report, "severely exacerbated the overcrowding in the aforementioned prisons." The human rights office confirmed that the police confiscated the possessions of the 1,282 inmates who were transferred, forbidding them to enter with their clothes and shoes, and forcing them to wear only their underwear. The report confirms that the inmates were made to sleep on the floor, as they were forbidden to have mattress pads or blankets. They reported that among the transferees were inmates with HIV, tuberculosis and renal failure who were not receiving treatment. It also attests to the fact that "many" of the inmates had severe fungal skin infections and as a result had "infected ulcers."

"In general no prisoner had receptacles with which to receive food. The only thing they had were plastic bottles which had been cut down the center or pieces of plastic bags from which food would spill. The majority received food in their bare hands."

During the first four months that the extraordinary measures were being exercised in full force, four inmates died due to a lack of medical attention; two of them from diseases that are not cited in the report, one from pneumonia, and the other from malnutrition. In the same time frame, despite the extraordinary measures, 11 inmates were assassinated inside the prisons as a result of internal purges within the gangs.

"They are in subhuman conditions. A total violation of their human rights and the law," said prosecutor Caballero.

The General Director of Prisons Rodil Hernández recognized that the conditions generated by the extraordinary measures have exacerbated the already terrible state of Salvadoran prisons. "The conditions that we have now practically overwhelm any action we can make in the prisons," he said.

He also admitted that the tuberculosis issue has the potential to become a "bomb," but that "it is not unusual, considering the current overcrowding we have. It could be worse." He assured that they have been considering investing more than a million dollars to construct six clinics, including one in the Quezaltepeque prison and one in Chalatenango prison.

Hernández said that the government plans on making million-dollar investments to expand holding capacities and reduce prison overcrowding in the short term.

Salvadoran prisons are the most crowded in the entire American continent, and their overpopulation usually lingers around 300 percent. The extraordinary measures have not been responsible for filling the prisons to the brim with gang members, but it has made the overcrowding almost unliveable. According to official data, as of November 8, the overpopulation rate in the Salvadoran penitentiary system was at 270 percent.

The Deputy Attorney for Vulnerable Populations Gerardo Alegría said that additionally children under the age of five, who remain with their mothers in the "maternity" section of the Quezaltepeque prison, also experience the harsh realities of the measures. They have remained under lock and key for 24 hours a day in the cells they share with their mothers.

Director Hernández confirmed this story: "The entire population of the prision is under the effect of the measures, but if I am not mistaken we only have three children, and the children also have permission to leave. If they have family on the outside, they can leave with them on the weekend."

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Since the implementation of the extraordinary measures, no non-governmental organization has been able to enter the prisons to verify the conditions in which the inmates live, nor the treatment they receive. Not even prestigious human rights organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), with which the Government of El Salvador has a convention that allows ICRC staff access to prisons.

In November 2012, the then-Minister of Justice and Public Security David Munguía Payés signed an agreement with the ICRC that would allow the organization as a verifying human rights entity to access the prisons, guaranteeing access to all facilities. However, since the implementation of the extraordinary measures in April, the government has denied the ICRC access to all of the prisons impacted by the measures.

According to the general director of prisons, the decision to deny access to the ICRC does not violate the signed agreement because the agreement, he asserts, "did not specify which prisons they could enter, and which they could not."

The ICRC representative in El Salvador, Dereck Spranger, preferred not to comment on the situation and he only revealed that the dialogue with the government of El Salvador is "direct and confidential."

The extraordinary measures are the tip of the spear in the government policies of combating crime under President Salvador Sánchez Cerén. The current administration's policies have been characterized by repressive policing, relaxing regulations that prevent human rights violations and the gratuitous use of force by the police and military.

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of El Faro. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

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