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From Overcrowding to Corruption, Examining Prison Life in Honduras

February 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A fast-moving blaze engulfed a Honduras prison Tuesday night, killing more than 272 people. Margaret Warner discusses the details of the fire and a prison system notorious for overcrowding and violence with The Wall Street Journal's Nicholas Casey, reporting from Mexico City.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the fire and on prisons in Honduras, we turn to Nicholas Casey, the Wall Street Journal’s Latin American correspondent based in Mexico City.

And, Nicholas, welcome.

First of all, what’s the latest on the number of people who actually died in this fire and how many escaped?

NICHOLAS CASEY, The Wall Street Journal: It looks like there might be as many as 364 people who died, which is a massive number of people for a prison that had just under 900 people in it.

So we’re talking about more than a third of the people who were in this prison weren’t able to get out, a place that clearly didn’t have an escape plan for how someone would get out if there was a time of a fire, or, if that plan was there, it wasn’t implemented properly — basically, one of the biggest numbers of people who were killed in a prison fire in Central America or, frankly, anywhere in the world in recent years.

MARGARET WARNER: And what have you been able to piece together about why so many prisoners remain locked in their cells?

NICHOLAS CASEY: Well, this is really common across Latin America. The prison system isn’t anything like what you have in the U.S.

It’s not very well regulated. It’s not very well monitored. So it’s no surprise that when there was a fire that took place, no one seemed to know where the key was. There wasn’t any plan for how to get the prisoners out of these cells and into safety. A lot of these prisons are run by organized crime groups that are in Central America.

A lot of the wardens — we don’t know the case is in this prison here — a lot of the wardens themselves are involved in organized crime. And many of the prisoners are continuing to do drug rackets or other crime activities from inside the prison. So these aren’t the prisons that have, you know, very sort of pristine floors and uniforms that you might expect in the U.S. or the Western world.

MARGARET WARNER: Yeah, or automatic door lock releases.

I know you have talked to people down there.

NICHOLAS CASEY: Or any of those things, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: I know you have talked to people down there today. Were they able to — what do they say about these reports that an inmate had deliberately set the fire?

NICHOLAS CASEY: Well, I don’t think anybody’s certain right now exactly what happened in the prison. It’s going to be some time before all the details come out.

But there have been reports that someone had a key. There were reports that people were hearing screaming that was coming out of the prison at that time. It’s not clear what has happened. There have been prison riots in Honduras that it’s turned out that weren’t really riots completely, as much as prison guards themselves were shooting at the people inside, causing the majority of the deaths.

So we’re going to see in coming months what actually happened there, you know, provided that the Honduran justice system is able to make some progress in piecing this one together. And Honduras is a country with really weak institutions, so even that that’s not guaranteed.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what is responsible for this incredible overcrowding? I mean, of course, every country has overcrowded prisons, or most do. But what are the particular situation — or circumstances in Honduras?

NICHOLAS CASEY: Well, what’s going on in Honduras, and not just that country, but also Guatemala, El Salvador, a lot of the countries in the northern part of Central America — to a degree, this also even includes Mexico — is that they’re fighting a big fight against drug traffickers right now.

But they don’t have a lot of resources to do that. So a lot of the resources are going into actually fighting the crime on the streets, catching the bad guys who are committing these crimes. If you think about it, when you decide what your budget is going to be for crime-fighting, no one really wants to build jails. People want to catch the bad guys.

So the situation that a lot of these countries have found themselves in, not just this year, but in previous years, too, is that they have got a lot of criminals and they don’t have anyplace to put them. They also don’t have any money to build jails to put them in. So they end up putting them in the same jails which were already there, which become overcrowded and then prone to an incident like this.

MARGARET WARNER: I know you talked to some political figures down there, some human rights folks. Did they think — first of all, what was their reaction to this, and, secondly, did they think anything’s going to change as a result?

NICHOLAS CASEY: Well, I talked to one of the Honduran congressmen this afternoon.

And one of the things he said which I think was really striking was that he wasn’t surprised that this had happened. This was an issue that everybody in Honduras and across Central America knows is a huge issue. And since they have known, they haven’t been able to do that much about it, because they’re not operating on a big budget.

He called this a huge national tragedy. And I think just as important, he said, think about the fact that, you know, a lot of people will try to move on from this just because it was prisoners. This is a really bad event to have happened in Honduras, regardless of whether these were completely innocent people or criminals.

This was the case of a government which couldn’t fight the second end of its drug war, which is taking care of and rehabilitating the people that it has put in jail. Whether this changes or not in Honduras, it’s not clear. This is a government that is now trying to raise a tax to fight the drug war. But it’s not clear whether that’s actually going to be enough money to do what they need to do.

They don’t receive a whole lot of assistance from the U.S. They have a small tax base in their country. It’s not a really good recipe for success there.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Nicholas Casey, Wall Street Journal, thank you so much.

NICHOLAS CASEY: Thanks, Margaret.