Monday, February 20, 2012

Looking at the Honduran prison fire from Copan

I’ve been parsing my way through the papers, diccionario in hand, reading about the Honduran prison fire that killed 359 people on Valentine’s Day.
If you’re the praying kind, offer a quick prayer that smoke and fumes killed those poor bastards trapped in their overcrowded cells. The alternative, based on the grisly pictures, is too horrible to contemplate.
And if you’re the thoughtful kind, turn your mind to the lessons from this fire for those living in Canada and B.C.
Honduran prisons are, of course, far worse than the grimmest Canadian jail. They were built to house large numbers of people in small quarters, and then crammed with even more prisoners.
The Granja Penal de Comayagua, which burned last week, was built to hold about 400 prisoners. It held 852 when the fire broke out around 10:30 p.m., with six guards on duty who apparently couldn’t or wouldn’t find the keys to open cells.
Photos from other prisons show eight prisoners laying on three single beds pushed together in a cell, and others on towels on the concrete floor, all in heat that routinely is in the high 30s.
Based on the multiple theories on the cause of the fire, it’s unlikely that it could happen in Canada. (They are wide-ranging. An electrical fire was blamed, but the power authority claimed that was impossible. There were reports an inmate set his mattress on fire, shouting “Tonight we all die.” Some surviving prisoners say the fire was part of a plan to let 85 prisoners escape that went wrong, and that the prison authorities had been paid to look the other way. There are similar rumours, according to the papers, that the fire was part of a plan to kill an inmate that spun out of control.)
This was not new for Honduras. A fire in 2003 killed 107 inmates; another one in 2004 killed 66. (In the 2003 fire, many were actually shot by guards as they tried to escape the flames.) Neither, according to one columnist, has been properly explained.
But some aspects of the whole disaster would be familiar to Canadians.
The jails are overcrowded, in part, because of anti-gang legislation that aimed to put more people behind bars. (Maras, the gangs are called, and they are a huge urban problem.)
That’s made the jails more crowded, but it has done nothing to make life safer.
Which is just as true in Canada, where the government is determined to lock more people up, for longer periods, without taking any steps to fund the prisons or ensure they come out less likely to commit crimes.
B.C. jails are routinely housing double the number of inmates they were designed for. That doesn’t mean they are as horrific as Honduran jails. It does mean they are dangerous, for inmates - many of whom have not been convicted of any offence - and staff.
And it means they are warehouses where rehabilitation isn’t a priority. Inmates have little access to education or counselling or such basic courses as anger management or dealing with drugs and alcohol, and are released with no provision for housing and few other supports. Mental illnesses - hugely common among the inmate population - are untreated. (A 2007-8 study found 30.1 per cent of female inmates in federal penitentiaries and 14.5% of male offenders had previously been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. You have to be very sick to be hospitalized for a mental illness in our health care system. In B.C. prisons, a study found 56 per cent of inmates had been medically diagnosed with a substance use disorder or a mental illness or both. This didn’t include alcohol abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome or developmental disabilities.)
The lack of supports and help, you could argue, is fine for the irredeemable offenders. But it’s stupid for the inmates who could have a reduced chance of re-offending with some skills, addiction services and support in avoiding the things that landed them in prison in the first place. The result is a vicious cycle of more and more prisoners, more and more jails, and more and more crime.
And in both countries, anyone in prison, for whatever reason, is seen by many as less than human. That's certainly the language of many politicians. And where language goes, action - or inaction - follows, whether in the form of overcrowding and no pretence of rehabilitation, or disastrous fires.
Canadians and Americans also play a big role in keeping Honduran prisons full. They buy the drugs - cocaine and crack - that are flooding through this country on their way to markets in the north.
There are vast amounts of money to be made in a dirt-poor country. It’s hardly surprising that drug transportation to meet the demand in North America is a large, violent and corrupting business. Cut the demand, or legalize and regulate more drugs along the alcohol model, and the crime problems and prison populations of Honduras plummet. (Though the economic impact would be damaging.)
All of which isn’t of much interest to the families of those men - and one woman, there for an illegal tryst with her boyfriend - who died in their cells on Valentine’s Day.

Footnotes: The B.C. auditor general just found two-thirds of offenders serving their sentences in the community may be failing to complete rehabilitation programs that have been assigned by probation officers. There aren’t enough staff to monitor compliance, so programs that might keep people from re-offending - and make the community safer - simply don’t happen, the Vancouver Sun reported. The number of offenders supervised by each probation officer has increased 28 per cent since 2005.
Mark Ungar offered a more informed commentary on the Honduran prison disaster in the New York Times.
The Honduran government has sportily agreed to help with funeral costs; the government of Taiwan has promised $100,000 to help the victims' families - about $390 each.
And the photo with this post, of a woman waiting for news of the fate of a family member in the Comayuga fire, is by Orlando Sierra of Agence France-presse.

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