More than 300 inmates are feared to have died when a fire broke out in a prison in Honduras, which was operating at well over capacity.
Authorities said that 356 prisoners were unaccounted for out of the total 852, but that some of these might have escaped. One of the dead is a female visitor who was staying overnight.
The fire began Tuesday night in the prison in Comayagua, but it is not yet known whether it was caused by an electrical fault or by an inmate setting fire to a mattress. Local firefighters described hellish scenes, reporting that "some 100 prisoners were burned to death or suffocated in their cells ... We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them."
One prisoner told local media that their calls for help were at first ignored. "For a while, nobody listened. But after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a guard appeared with keys and let us out," he said.”
InSight Crime Analysis
The tragedy highlights the deep problems of the Honduran prison system -- the Comayagua facility was well over capacity in terms of number of inmates it was designed to hold, reports Reuters.
In 2010, the country's 24 prisons held more than 11,700 prisoners, though there was only capacity for 8,280, according to El Heraldo.
One reason for the overcrowding is the “mano dura” or iron fist approach to crime, which concentrates on locking up members of youth gangs, sometimes just for being associated with the gangs rather than for a specific offense. Overcrowding and a lack of resources means that discipline is poor. Prisons are dominated by powerful gangs of inmates, and criminals often carry on their activities from inside. Some half of all extortions in Tegucigalpa are carried out from within the city’s prison, according to Honduran authorities.
The shortcomings of the penal system have been exposed again and again by incidents in which prisoners lose their lives. In 2004, more than 100 inmates died in a fire in a prison in the city of San Pedro Sula. In 2006, 13 inmates died in a riot in a prison north of Tegucigalpa. Nine died in riots in San Pedro Sula prison as recently as October.
In 2010 President Porfirio Lobo declared an emergency in nine of the country’s 24 prisons. This latest disaster, and the massive loss of life, could force the government to finally carry out real reforms.
A version of this article appeared on the Pan-American Post.