According to Honduras’ La Tribuna, yesterday’s uprising began as a scuffle between armed members of rival prison gangs, in which at least two inmates were murdered, one of whom was then decapitated. Police officials claim that the inmates then started a fire in the prison’s kitchen. While reports of the casualties vary, between 13 and 18 prisoners died as a result of the fire and clashes.
La Prensa reports that the uprising was brought to a halt by San Pedro bishop Romulo Emiliani. Monsignor Emiliani claims that prison guards were unable to break up the fight, and the inmates themselves called on him to mediate the conflict. After two hours of dialogue, Emiliani convinced the gangs to end the violence and allow guards to retake the prison.
The incident came just six weeks after another tragic prison fire in in Comayagua killed more than 300 inmates. It also comes after reports that the Church brokered a deal with gang leaders to lower gang-related homicide levels in El Salvador.
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The violence points to the deeply-rooted problems in the Honduran prison system, which is notoriously overcrowded and under-staffed. Like the Comayagua prison, the facility in San Pedro Sula was immensely over capacity. Although it was originally intended for no more than 800 prisoners, AFP notes that some 2,250 inmates are currently being detained there.
Overcrowding is a hallmark of Honduran prisons, and the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies claims that the country’s prison facilities contained nearly 38 percent more inmates than their intended capacity in 2010. The massive surplus of prisoners, combined with a lack of institutional control, has caused Honduran prisons to become dominated by violent street gangs. According to a recent report by the National Human Rights Commission, at least 30 inmates were killed in prison clashes last year.
As InSight Crime has reported, much of this overcrowding is due to the prevalence of pre-trial detentions, in which a suspect is detained without being formally charged for a crime. In the Comayagua prison, for instance, more than half of the inmates were being held under such circumstances.