An age old problem: horrid conditions and overcrowding claim yet more human lives

In a recent New York Times article, Javier C. Hernandez and Randal C. Archibold discuss one of the latest tragedies to befall the inhabits of incarceration. Specifically, the article focuses on a fire in a prison in Honduras where severe overcrowding, abhorrent conditions, and one inmate with a match are responsible for over three hundred deaths and counting. The article tells the story of how the guards were nowhere to be found as inmates burned alive in their cells while others bashed their way out of their cells, escaped, and are still at large. While this event is tragic, in the scale of things it barely puts a blip on the radar and the article acknowledges this, unlike most articles that cover similar events, which is why I decided to address it.

The real tragedy here is not what happened to the prisoners, though this event is obviously a horrific tragedy and I can’t state that enough; rather, the real tragedy is that the cause of the fire is something that has been plaguing the international community for decades. Prison overcrowding and horrid conditions are far too often the acceptable norm in modern society. Granted, there are plenty of exceptions, but the problem is out there and it has been out there for quite some time and it does not look like it is going away anytime soon. Central America for example, which is the focus of this article, is notorious for its overcrowded, poorly funded, and unsanitary incarceration facilities.

What makes this problem even worse is that one of the major sources of the problem is that people just don’t care. They say that the people in the prisons have made their choices, but then they become shocked when accidents like this occur. However, what they don’t realize is that these conditions make accidents like this one common place whether they are in the form or fires, riots, or other disasters. In Honduras alone, over the past few years riots and fires have lead to the death of hundreds of inmates and guards alike. Granted, the international community has a lot to worry about, but it needs to keep an eye on old problems as well and this is a problem that is not going to go away on its own.

3 comments

  1. How is prison overcrowding the sole cause of these inmates’ deaths when a fire spread? Why aren’t the deaths attributable to the individual who struck the match or the prison guards who failed to prevent the spread of the fire? Or rather are the security guards the ones who shift the blame to overcrowding? Is it easier to blame overcrowding then to look at questions such as: how did the match get there; who struck that match; why didn’t guards notice the match; and why didn’t these guards prevent the spread of the fire? I do not dispute that prison overcrowding is a real issue around the world. But, what happened here may not just be an issue of overcrowding. (based on facts provided) If this fire spread outside of the prison and if not just inmates were killed, would we still be blaming prison overcrowding or would we find the cause of the fire and also punish those who failed to prevent the spread of it?

  2. This is a tragedy and I can see how many factors combined to have such a deadly outcome. I agree with Christina, in that, if there had not been a match and there had not bee flammable materials – it seem likely that the prison could have continued to be overcrowded in that manner and there would not have been a fire. However, it seems that overcrowding (and poor upkeep of the prisons) play an important role in that there was not a proper way to evacuate that many people nor were there enough prison staff to deal with the issue. I also have to admit, when I pictured overcrowding, I did not picture quite what is their reality. CNN has reported that they slept 7-8 bunks high and just also the sheer level of violence that this overcrowding creates. I hope that this event can serve as an alert to other prisons all around the world to take another look at their conditions and to make sure that evacuation would be possible.

  3. You make a great point that overcrowding and treatment of prisoners in general is a problem plaguing the international community. However universal the problem, the ability to cope with it necessarily varies by state and with its economic and political stability. Like Honduras, U.S. prisons are overcrowded, often with those convicted of drug crimes; however, a fire like in this Honduran prison is less likely to occur here: mattresses are generally fire-retardant, and Latin American prisons, notoriously violent, allow inmates to smoke, have cigarette lighters, and generally do not provide food such that inmates’ families are often responsible for feeding their incarcerated relatives. Furthermore, while the U.S. Supreme Court, in a May 2011 decision, ordered California to reduce its prison population by nearly a quarter of those incarcerated because the overcrowding violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Honduras likely will not receive such a similar push for reform. Honduras is riddled with corruption, has poor infrastructure, and facing internal strife. Andrew Coyle of the International Center for Prison Studies at the University of Essex (U.K.) has said: “You cannot reform a prison system in isolation from the rest of civil society — and where civil society is violent and dangerous and destructive, it’s no great surprise that it extends into the rest of the prison.”

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