This month’s attack on the head of the Honduran prison system has raised the important question: Does the government have any control over its penitentiaries?
Prison director Jonathan Espinoza remains in critical condition after he was attacked on 4 February, by four alleged gang members presumably unhappy with new rules and restrictions he had placed on their jailed associates, Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said.
Questions of control over the prisons were raised again this week when the Director of the National Preventative Services, Danilo Orellana, said close to 50 percent of all extortions in Tegucigalpa originate in the “Marco Aurelio Soto” jail, located northwest of the capital city.
According to El Heraldo newspaper, Honduran prisons hold 11,757 prisoners but have room for just 8,280. Two of the largest prisons are facing the worst overcrowding. “Marco Aurelio Soto” has 2,778 inmates but is designed to hold 1,800. San Pedro Sula’s prison has 2,118 inmates who live in a space built for 550.
Part of this overcrowding can be blamed on public policy. The so-called “Mano Dura” or “Hard Line” approach to dealing with gangs by governments like Honduras led to mass arrests of gang members, sometimes with as little evidence as a tattoo to prove their “affiliation.”
The resulting spike in gang population in the jails led to riots between rival gangs, principally the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (M-18), including one in 2003 that led to the deaths of 86 prisoners at the El Porvenir prison.
Other inmates have escaped. In 2007, ten gang members escaped from Yoro prison. In 2009, 79 prisoners escaped from a state-run prison in Santa Barbara.
Seeking more control over the prisons, Espinoza tried to put more restrictions on visitations, so authorities could better control the contraband entering the jails, including illegal drugs and weapons they had found.
“The strongest hypothesis we have [for the attempted murder] is that director was trying to maintain order in the jails,” Alvarez said.
The problem is not limited to Honduras. El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico all face challenges controlling their prisons and prison population. The “Hard Line” approach in El Salvador resulted in a doubling of gang inmates between 2004 and 2008, bringing rival violence between the MS-13 and the M-18 into an already stressed prison system. In Guatemala, efforts to control prison security led to the murder of four prison officials in 2009. In Mexico, escapes have become commonplace.
With a lack of security in the region’s prisons, bringing gang members off the streets exacerbates the already deteriorating prison system. Escapes, extortion and even murders have been planned and executed from jails in the region.
This month, Honduran prison officials announced a plan which would strengthen the national penitentiary’s infrastructure and security system. The proposed budget increase of 15 million lempiras (about $792,000) comes at a time when prison officials are working to install enhanced digital monitoring systems and metal detectors, and attempting to block the use of cell phones inside the prisons, which are used to plan criminal activities.