Inmates Run Honduras Prison as Micro-State

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A rare look inside a Honduran prison describes how inmates bosses known as “bulls” have set up a sophisticated mini-state, charging taxes and doling out punishments, in an example of how prison economies function across Latin America.

When a new inmate arrives at Marco Aurelio Soto prison outside Tegucigalpa, the guards immediately pass him over to a inmate boss called a “toro” (bull), or their underlings, a former inmate told Honduran newspaper El Heraldo. The new arrival is charged a 150 lempira ($8) “registration fee” for the cleaning of their block — if they cannot pay they will be put on cleaning duty themselves.

The toros provide for inmates’ basic needs, at a price. They charge 170 lempiras a month for the use of a mattress, for those who have the cash to avoid sleeping on the prison floor, and another 150 lempiras for a bed frame. The more wealthy prisoner can purchase a private cell with bed for 25,000 lempiras ($1,300), with another 100 lempiras a week for cleaning services.

The prison is divided into four modules, each controlled by a toro. The modules are each divided into 20 corridors, which in turn have bosses who answer to the toros. The bulk of the fees go to the toros, with some going to the corridor bosses and some to their collaborators among the guards. Prisoners who don’t have money to pay taxes imposed by the toros are sometimes put to work selling drugs, according to the newspaper.

As well as providing basic services, the inmate bosses have their own disciplinary system. El Heraldo reported that the toros, who are “all-powerful” within the prison, have the power to order beatings, the death penalty, or to make their punishments more lenient.

To kill or beat up another prisoner, an inmate must have the permission of the toro, which costs money. The toros can also organize escapes, coordinated with prison police, for a mere 200,000 lempiras ($10,000), according to the report.

Like their counterparts in other Latin American countries, toros thrive in the vacuum of authority in Honduras’ prisons. In the Hobbesian state of nature that reigns on the inside, inmates step up and create their own power structures, forming a mini state with taxes, a functioning economy, and disciplinary procedures. This is a function of sheer lack of resources — the Marco Aurelio Soto prison has 2,200 prisoners, according to the newspaper, guarded by only 200 officers.

The power of the toros also stems from the large profits to be made from various illegal businesses inside prisons. Police and guards are complicit in these businesses, as El Heraldo reported; national prison director Oscar Colindres told the newspaper that police are the ones who get drugs and other illegal items into the prisons. They coordinate with the toros, who manage the sale of weapons, drugs, and alcohol on the inside. One of the biggest businesses is gambling, and the Marco Aurelio Soto facility has sophisticated betting operations, according to El Heraldo, which compares it to Las Vegas: “the corridors of the modules become improvised casinos, where they set up games of cards, roulette, and craps.”

The corridor bosses are charged with collecting taxes from those who run the gambling operations — “no one can enter the business without the authorization of the toro,” one prisoner told El Heraldo. These businesses must also pay taxes to the prison authorities, as prison director Marvin Rajo explained to the newspaper.

Prisoners often continue to run illegal businesses on the outside — last year, national prison director Danilo Orellana said that almost half of all extortions in Tegucigalpa originated in Marco Aurelio Soto.

The profits to be made by providing inmate services are sizable. If we estimate that about half of Marco Aurelio Soto’s 2,200 prisoners have the means to pay 170 lempiras for a mattress, and that another 30 percent also pay for a bed at 320 lempiras a month, these fees alone would bring in nearly 400,000 lempiras a month — some $20,000, or a quarter of a million dollars a year. This, added to protection money, the purchase of private rooms, and the income from an occasional escape, plus whatever the gambling taxes bring in, would represent annual revenue in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Honduras’ toros are just one example of inmates who run prisons, sometimes at great profit, across Latin America. By way of comparison, La Planta, a Venezuelan prison about the same size as Marco Aurelio Soto, has an internal economy worth $3.7 million a year, according to official figures. It is run by inmate bosses known as “pranes,” whose biggest source of income comes from a weekly tax imposed on the 2,600 inmates. This fee, known as the “causa,” brings in the bulk of revenue, at $1.6 million a year. Sales tax makes up another 13 percent, and tax on drug dealers nearly 7 percent.

Another country where inmates have set up profitable power structures is Bolivia, where prisons are often run almost entirely by the prisoners. There have been reports of inmates in Cochabamba prisons bringing in 50,000 bolivianos ($7,000) a month from protection fees, cell rental, the right to sell drugs, and charges for making phone calls.

As well as charging taxes and holding a monopoly on violence, prison bosses have also been known to take on the role of government in another way, protecting the rights on the inmates they rule over. According to the Andean Information Network, Bolivian prison leaders, known as “delegates” are elected by inmates and function as advocates for their interests, applying sanctions for those who break prison regulations (which are voted on by inmates) and assisting those who are left indigent. And in Venezuela, many recent prison stand-offs have been organized by inmates demanding better conditions. After the pran of Caracas’ Vista Hermosa prison was transferred to another facility in 2008, inmates organized a strike and their families demonstrated in protest, arguing that the pran kept order inside the prison, and had led the fight for inmate rights such as proper medical care.

Not all pranes are so benevolent. A recent New York Times blog post reported on Tocoron prison, southwest of Caracas, where a pran known as “El Niño Guerrero” charges inmates $12 to $25 a week for various services “like special foods or simply not being killed in their sleep,” while “booze, mobile phones, drugs, laptops and guns cost extra.” Inmates under his regime are luckier than those led by a pran in Uribana prison, who “gets his kicks from watching inmates fight each other with knives.”

In all three countries, inmates have taken over the running of the prison, benignly or otherwise, due to massive overcrowding and lack of resources. Honduras’ prisons have capacity for some 8,300 inmates, but as of March they were estimated to hold more than 11,600, according to El Heraldo. Figures quoted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), meanwhile, say the country may have as many as 13,000 inmates. Bolivia is thought to have more than double the number of inmates its prisons were designed to hold, with over 11,500 in a system intended for 4,700. In Venezuela, the situation is still worse — some estimate that the system, designed for 14,000 inmates, now has over 50,000. La Planta is reported to have 2,600 inmates in a facility built for 350.

The power of inmate bosses can only be broken through drastic reform to bring prison populations down to a manageable size and impose proper systems of control. Until this happens, the toros, pranes and delagates may be the only alternative to anarchy.

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