A disaster allowed to happen

The tragedy in Honduras that left more than 350 prisoners dead reveals the hardships of a country with the highest murder rate in the world, an overcrowded prison system, and a painfully slow legal process.

Honduran authorities must determine whether the fire at the Comayagua prison was caused by a short circuit or by a prisoner setting a mattress on fire. They also must examine the response of guards and those at the helm of the facility to the fire. Media reports suggest they were more concerned about preventing prisoners from scaping than about saving their lives.

Porfirio Lobo’s administration must investigate and bring accountability for this horrific tragedy. Honduras has a long history of prison fires where the intervention of authorities has been controversial, at best.

What happened at the prison, however, is the result of a storm of challenges for Honduras and other Latin American countries.

The numbers tell this bleak story: Honduras has a murder rate of 82 per 100,000 inhabitants. The Comayagua prison held 852 inmates, double its capacity; of those prisoners, more than half were waiting to be tried or sentenced.

Prison overcrowding, which contributed to a death count by the hundreds, is also a crisis throughout the continent. During the past decade, more than 730 inmates have died in fires, riots and fights in Chile, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Elsewhere, prison conditions are ticking time bomb. In El Salvador, for example, 25,400 prisoners share space designed for 8,100.

The problem begins with crime, which is often the only or most tempting way of surviving poverty and the lack of opportunity. Then, suspects who have not even had their day in court are warehoused with convicts in crammed facilities that are grossly ill equipped to handle emergency situations.

The sweeping reform that is urgently overdue in Latin America must be guided by the concept of rehabilitation-not warehousing human beings. It is the government’s responsibility to make this agenda a top priority and guarantee the human rights of prisoners. Otherwise, Latin Americans will continue to be prisoners of these types of tragedies.