Chilean prisoners living in subhuman conditions: Minister

Monday, December 13, 2010

Santiago, Dec 14 (IANS/EFE) Justice Minister Felipe Bulnes acknowledged Monday that due to the overcrowding in Chile’s jails, prisoners are living “in subhuman conditions”.

Overcrowding in penitentiaries has been named as one reason why 81 inmates died last Wednesday in a fire that burned part of the capital’s San Miguel Prison, which is holding some 1,900 people, or nearly double its intended capacity.

This situation is repeated in almost all the jails in Chile, which has a prison population of some 54,000 people in an infrastructure with a capacity for only about 34,000.

“Of course we need more jails, because it would allow us to separate and rehabilitate. With rates of overcrowding like this, conditions are subhuman, an indignity,” Bulnes told the Chilevision network.

Bulnes defended the anti-crime policy of President Sebastian Piera, who promised during his campaign “to put a lock on the revolving door”, which in his opinion exists in the judicial system and allows criminals to be rapidly released after being arrested, only to go on committing more crimes.

In an interview, Bulnes said there are two ways to “lock the revolving door”: the first is crime prevention and the second is rehabilitation.

He also admitted the need to purge the Gendarmeria - prison service - in response to accusations by inmates’ families that some guards are regularly bribed to bring drugs, cell phones and other prohibited items into the prisons.

Bulnes also said that overcrowded cell blocks are a longstanding problem, and while denying that he wanted to start an argument with anyone, he repeated his criticism of ex-President Ricardo Lagos, who governed 2000-06.

“I have never wanted to argue with Lagos because overcrowding has been going on for decades, it’s an uncomfortable subject that no one likes to talk about. I’m not pointing a finger at anyone,” he said.

But he did recall that during the Lagos government a promise was made to build 10 prisons and only three were ever completed.

Meanwhile, the medical examiner’s office said Monday that it has been able to identify the bodies of 67 out of the 81 inmates who died in the San Miguel blaze.

There was tension over the weekend during several funerals for dead prisoners during which, following a local gangland tradition, the procession of mourners passed in front of the jail, where the coffin was taken from the hearse and shown publicly as people yelled, threw stones and shot guns in the air.


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