Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mass deaths in a Honduras prison

Tuesday night a fire broke out in the Comayagua jail. Firefighters arrived but couldn’t enter since the authorities said they couldn’t locate the guards with the keys.

There are still a lot of unanswered (and unasked) questions but it appears that about 356 prisoner perished in the inferno. An investigation is promised by Honduran president Pepe Lobe.

This is not the first major deaths in the Honduras prisons.

In 2003 69 prisoners were killed in a La Ceiba prison; it was described by authorities as the result of gangs fighting but other sources contest this interpretation and see it as a deliberate attack on gang members.

In 2004 a fire in a San Pedro Sula prison left 100 dead.

Human rights Watch Americas director José Miguel Vivanco put it in context:
“The tragic deaths of hundreds of inmates, one of the worst incidents of its kind in the region, are ultimately the result of overcrowding and poor prison conditions, two longstanding problems in Honduras.… Given that Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, authorities have been locking up convicted and suspected criminals, but failing to address the conditions in which they are being held.”

To be specific: as the bishop and priests of the diocese of Comayagua noted, the Comayagua prison was built for 250 inmates but housed 852.

Several times I have visited the jail here in Santa Rosa de Copán, usually with Sor Inés, the Spanish Franciscan sister who lives down the street and visits the jail regularly.

The jail is overcrowded – probably at twice its capacity. In one small cell where I once visited for las Posadas there were three towers of bunks beds, three or four tiers high!

What inhuman conditions!

Of course, some might claim that they deserve this; after all, they are criminals. 

Some are guilty of serious crimes. But Honduran jails imprison not only criminals who have faced trials and been sentenced; they house men and women who have not yet been brought up to trial and, I believe, some who have not even been accused of a crime.

I am in the midst of reading a fascinating book on scripture reading, Bob Ekblad’s Reading the Bible with the Damned. It draws on the author’s experience with bible studies among the poor and marginalized, especially in jail.

In one bible study he asked the men how they felt after a hearing before the superior court (p. 23).

“Like we were criminals, “ a man says.
"Like we are guilty, even before we have been convicted,” says another.
“I felt like they had already decided, hey, this Mexican guy is guilty…”
“So how did you feel with all those eyes on you?”
“Very bad. Like they think we are garbage.”

After that Ekblad had them read Genesis 1:31: “God saw everything that he had made, and, indeed, it was very good.

They are considered the offscouring, the refuse of the earth – but they too are God’s creation – and most of them are the poor.

May God have mercy on us all, and especially on the leaders of Honduras who continue to permit such atrocities against God’s people.


Charles said...

You've probably seen Dana Frank's interview via Adrienne. She seems to think there's some likelihood the fire was a means of silencing people. Certainly it's suspicious that there have been a string of prison fires with mass lethality. And what better way to make sure that people won't talk?

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

There have been other fires in the past few years that did not result in so many deaths. In the past three or four years there was a fire at the Santa Barbara prison which did not make the news but the prisoners had to be moved to other jails.
Also, according to reports over half of the people in jail were awaiting trial.
Also, it is reported that there are 355 corpses. Earlier, some had been suggesting that the number 355 included some who may have escaped.

Charles said...

Thanks for the reminder that the previous fires were not of the same magnitude as this one. I looked up the Santa Barbara fire, and officials said that although 11 inmates had been shot and three had escaped, there had been no deaths. I had (mis)remembered it as being much worse.