The prisons in El Salvador are often referred to as one of the sources of El Salvador's crime problems, not a tool used to reduce crime. El Salvador has a high incarceration rate, with 370 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. That's 17th out of 217 countries, according to a recent study. (Although only half the rate of #1, the United States, which imprisons 753 persons per 100,000). Read more statistics about the prisons here.
As part of his use of the military to help fight crime, president Funes is sending soldiers to patrol the prison areas, as described in this AP report:
Soldiers in El Salvador have started patrolling prisons to fight gangs and inmate-led crime. President Mauricio Funes says jailed gang leaders often run criminal operations and order violence from within prisons and the troops will reinforce controls both inside and outside the nation's penitentiaries. In an address to the country, the president said the first troops were deployed Wednesday in a prison in Ciudad Barrios, which holds 1,000 Mara Salvatrucha gang members. He did not reveal the number of soldiers.
One role of the troops is to prevent the smuggling of cell phones and other weapons into the prisons. Marcela Sanchez writing in the Latin American Herald Tribune states:
The cell phone has proven to be the weapon of choice for gang members serving time in El Salvador's prisons. By phoning threats to Salvadorans at home and in the U.S., last year gang members funneled into prisons between $750,000 and $800,000 dollars, illicit profits of extortion that corrupt the correctional system from within.
Efforts to block all cellular calls from the prisons have been circumvented by complicit prison officials. And while 1855 cell phones were confiscated last year, many more have found there way in, sometimes stashed in soccer balls skillfully kicked over the prison walls to inmates waiting within.
Writing at Slate.com, author Torie Bosch describes health problems in the Salvadoran prisons:
But if prison is dangerous for most of the Salvadoran personas privadas de libertad (persons deprived of freedom), it is, perhaps expectedly, worse for those living with HIV and other chronic illnesses. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime notes that factors contributing to the virus's spread among prison populations include "overcrowding, unsafe sexual activities and injecting drug use, violence, gangs, lack of protection for the youngest, female and weakest inmates, corruption and poor prison health services"—all of which are not only present but pervasive within El Salvador's 23 correctional facilities for adults. Delivering medical treatment to HIV-positive patients and other sick inmates in an overcrowded, gang-filled system is an immense task, complicated by the country's poverty, the dangers of bringing health workers into the prison environment, stigma surrounding HIV and homosexual activity, and inmates' own resistance. But new programs may create a safe zone for HIV-positive inmates and allow for better education and treatment.
Bosch goes on to describe a new program which brings testing and awareness about HIV into the prisons.