One of El Salvador's most intractable problems is the state of its prison system. The high crime rate has filled the prisons to three times their capacity. Conditions are deplorable. Gangs control large areas inside the prisons and direct their criminal networks outside the prison walls.
An IPS story titled Salvadoran Prisons – Hubs of Organised Crime highlights the problem of the prisons as control centers for crime:
Decades of government neglect, a corruption-racked penitentiary system and a growing wave of violent crime have combined to move El Salvador's prisons even further away from their stated purpose of rehabilitation while strengthening their role as veritable schools of crime.The Office of the Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a report last month on the severe flaws of the system:
According to government figures, around 80 percent of all cases of extortion in El Salvador are coordinated from jail by cell-phone, thanks to a well-oiled network of suppliers of phones, chips and chargers, inmates and their families, and prison guards.
In one such case, in March 2009 the prosecutor's office charged Darwin Ticas, an inmate serving a 30-year sentence for homicide, with running an extortion racket involving 11 people from his cell. The scheme, which operated in the eastern city of San Miguel, included members of his family.
Extortion is not the only crime ordered from prison cells. Kidnappings and murders are also planned, usually by convicts belonging to the Salvatrucha and M18 gangs, the two leading street gangs in Central America. (more).
The Inter-American Commission appreciates the Salvadoran government's efforts to correct many of the deficiencies that the country's prison system has suffered for decades. In this regard, the IACHR takes note of important initiatives such as the strengthening of the Penitentiary School; efforts to purge the ranks of prison personnel; the establishment of national dialogue processes; measures planned to reduce prison overcrowding; plans to improve the management of the Salvadoran Institute for the Integral Development of Children and Adolescents (ISNA); and the attitude of greater openness that the current government has shown toward civil society organizations.The annex to this report details a series of abuses in the prison system by both regular prison authorities and the armed forces which have been called in to augment prison security. Compounding the problem is the fact that El Salvador puts in prison significant numbers of people who are arrested, before they are ever convicted in a trial.
At the same time, the Office of the Rapporteur expresses its concern over the structural deficiencies it observed in the Salvadoran prison system. This situation is the result of a decades-long absence of public policies that would enable the prison system to fulfill the aims established by the American Convention on Human Rights: "the reform and social readaptation of the prisoners."
The Office of the Rapporteur verified a prison overpopulation rate of more than 300%. The high level of overcrowding and the lack of adequate physical structures, including insufficient access to sanitary facilities and drinking water, facilitate the spread of respiratory illnesses and infections, creating deplorable heath conditions. The Office of the Rapporteur is also concerned about the lack of access to reeducation and training programs; the practice of military forces conducting bodily searches of inmates' family members at certain prisons; the lack of adequate installations for receiving visitors in appropriate conditions; and the inadequate food provided to those deprived of liberty.
Prison overcrowding may have contributed to the deaths of 16 and injuries to 24 young inmates during a fire at a detention facility this morning. The cause of the fire is believed to be an electrical short circuit. Also this week Salvadoran authorities discovered a tunnel being dug out from the prison in Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel, which could have let a hundred or more inmates escape.