Political Risk Latin America Blog @PolRiskLatam

Chile’s prison tragedy

Posted in Uncategorized by politicalrisklatam on December 9, 2010

by R.B. for The Economist – Americas View, December 8th, 2010.

The rescue in October of 33 miners trapped underground by rockfall was an impressive display of the Chilean state’s competence. Sadly, there was no happy ending following a fire that broke out on December 8th in the San Miguel jail in southern Santiago, the capital. So far 81 people have died, and around 20 more are injured, including three who are now in critical condition. Jaime Mañalich, the health minister, called the accident “probably the worst ever in Chile’s prison system”. Clearly, not all parts of the state are as effective as its miner-rescue team.

Chilean prisons are extremely overcrowded even by Latin American standards, housing around 60% more inmates than they were designed for. Even Sebastián Piñera, who this year became Chile’s first right-of-centre president since the country’s return to democracy in 1990, calls the system “absolutely inhumane”. The country’s largest jail, built in central Santiago in the mid-1800s, is operating at 300% of capacity.

The San Miguel prison was in similarly poor shape. It was intended for 700 inmates, but according to a court report in October, it was packed with 1,924 prisoners and just 100 guards, working in three shifts. The blaze reportedly began after two prisoners in a fight set fire to their mattresses. Once firemen arrived, they had to use wire cutters to get through the perimeter gates, and had trouble opening locked cell doors. (continue reading… )

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