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Honduras report bolsters criticism of prison system

The Comayagua prison was built for 250 people but held 842, a panel reported in December. More than 350 inmates died in a fire there this week.

February 17, 2012|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • Police officers and workers carry a coffin into the morgue in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The bodies of inmates killed in the prison fire in Comayagua began arriving in the capital city for identification.
Police officers and workers carry a coffin into the morgue in Tegucigalpa,… (Fernando Antonio / Associated…)

Reporting from Mexico City — The prison where more than 350 inmates died in a fire this week was packed with more than three times the number of prisoners it was built to hold, according to an official report issued in December.

As Honduran officials worked Thursday to remove and identify victims of the deadly blaze, new details about how the Comayagua prison was run appeared to bolster broad criticism of the country's overcrowded and unsafe prison system.

The Comayagua prison was built for 250 inmates but held 842, according to the December report on Honduras' prison system by the government-appointed National Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

The prison held about the same number of inmates, all men, Tuesday night when a fire trapped many prisoners in their cells as rescuers hunted in vain for keys.

In a sign of Honduras' flawed justice system, fewer than half of the men imprisoned in Comayagua had been convicted and sentenced, according to the 114-page report, called "Diagnosis of the Penitentiary System in Honduras." The majority were detainees facing criminal proceedings.

Some inmates were being held on suspicion of being gang members because they had tattoos, according to Antonio Maldonado, a human rights advisor to the United Nations based in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.

Comayagua prisoners were spread among 10 "homes," sleeping on four-level bunks and sustained by a spare diet of rice, beans and tortillas. More than 100 inmates slept on the floor. The prison spent 68 cents a day on food for each prisoner. The cells had a heavy stench and ventilation was poor.

"They are unhealthy places," the report says. Inmates were overseen by 67 guards working in shifts of 10.

Overall, the report paints a depressing picture of the state of Honduran prisons, which hold 11,000 to 13,000 inmates and have been long decried by rights advocates as crowded warehouses of misery.

In general, the report says, prisoners endure dangerous conditions in ramshackle quarters that are watched over by guards who are poorly trained and ill-paid.

"The national penitentiary system is collapsed," the report says. It calls the prisons "universities of crime."

On Thursday, the Center for Justice and International Law said Honduras had failed to comply with a 2006 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordering the government to ensure safe conditions in its prisons. The group said the San Jose, Costa Rica-based court is to take up a case this month of a 2004 fire at a prison in San Pedro Sula that killed more than 100 Honduran prisoners.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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