Chile debates prison changes after fire
Severely crowded cells; 81 inmates killed in blaze
SANTIAGO, Chile — President Sebastian Pinera of Chile announced a multimillion-dollar plan yesterday to improve conditions for the country’s prisoners after 81 inmates were killed by fire in severely crowded cells.
The $460 million, 15-point program includes purchasing prefabricated cement modular prisons for minimum-security inmates to help reduce crowding. Currently, 53,000 inmates are housed in a prison system built for 32,000.
The new jails would add space for 10,000 prisoners — but the jails would still contain 11,000 more inmates than they are built for.
Pinera did not elaborate on other parts of the plan. His announcement came as officials continued the slow process of identifying the bodies of inmates killed in the blaze that broke out early Wednesday in the San Miguel prison, a facility for 700 that housed 1,900 inmates.
Only 31 prisoners had been identified as of yesterday; investigators were using DNA to identify the other 50. Sixteen were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.
The cause of the fire has not been determined, but preliminary investigations indicate it was started by brawling inmates.
The head of Chile’s association of prison employees, Pedro Hernandez, told reporters yesterday that the fire might have been caused by portable stoves and flammable materials the inmates used to cook food. He said those items could have been used to make homemade flame-throwers.
Prison overcrowding is severe throughout Latin America, where bureaucratic legal systems have been overwhelmed with suspects since countries began cracking down on drugs in the wake of a 1988 United Nations treaty that urged jail terms for even petty offenses.
Many governments haven’t invested in improving prisons, where most inmates languish for months or years without trial, said Pien Metaal of the Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based think tank. Together with the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, the institute published a study yesterday on drugs and prisons in Latin American countries.
“Criminalizing personal drug use is the main cause of this overpopulation, so the solutions should start with changing the laws and having fewer people prosecuted for minor offenses,’’ Metaal told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter on Wednesday rejected suggestions from the country’s Roman Catholic Church that the government solve prison overcrowding by giving some of the prisoners amnesty.
Pinera announced his 15-point plan during the presentation of an annual report by the national Human Rights Institute, a governmental organization created a year ago.
Opposition legislator Ricardo Rincon said the nation needs “a profound reform of the country’s entire justice and prison system.’’