Overcrowded CentAm Prisons Reflect Failed ‘Iron Fist’ Policies

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Central America’s immensely overcrowded prisons with poor human rights conditions are a reminder of failed repressive anti-crime measures, say experts, with El Salvador’s numbers particularly revealing.

Criminologist Omar Flores, of the Foundation of Studies for the Application of Law (Fespad) in El Salvador, told news agency the AFP: “The states decided to repress crimes instead of preventing them. The overcrowding is shocking and prevents resocialization in these prisons, which have become human warehouses.” According to Flores, the situation is worst in the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — where the “re-militarization” of security has led to mass imprisonments.

The numbers speak for themselves. Regionally, there are 92,565 prisoners in 114 antiquated prisons designed for roughly half as many inmates, according to numbers cited by AFP. Overcrowding is worst in El Salvador — the country has 26,614 prisoners in spaces designed for 8,490 — while Honduras recorded the highest number of prisoner deaths between 2011 and 2012 at 419 — although many of these were due to a massive prison fire that killed hundreds.

Overcrowding has not only led to a shortage of health services, food and water, it is also a major factor in frequent fights, escapes, riots and fires, the report states.

InSight Crime Analysis

Prison overcrowding is a major issue affecting various parts of Latin America, as noted in the past by InSight Crime. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported in 2012 that the trend has led to various human rights violations and deaths of prisoners, and called overcrowding “the biggest problem facing Latin America’s prisons.”

Harsh government security policies have contributed significantly to current problems. So-called “iron fist” policies in the Northern Triangle, such as Plan Mano Dura, which was implemented in El Salvador in 2003, led to massive roundups of gang members, who were then crowded together into prisons. Once crammed inside, gangs often consolidated, developing more hierarchical structures. Many of the region’s street gangs are now effectively commanded from inside prisons, with leaders coordinating outside criminal activities.

SEE ALSO: InSight Crime’s El Salvador Prison Special

The problem is not confined to Central America, and is a serious issue throughout the region, especially in countries hit hard by organized crime. Venezuela in particular suffers exceptionally overcrowded and violent prisons, while in Colombia, failure to tackle overcrowding and corruption has led to a campaign to dissolve the country’s primary prison authority.

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