Horror in Honduras after deadly prison blaze

Nearly four hundred men are dead after the worst prison fire in a hundred year raged through a Latin American jail. The tragedy raises hard questions about the ethics of imprisonment.

It was just before 11 when the fire began, and it spread quickly. In a fortified maze of endless locked doors, there was no escape from the flames. Keys were lost as the guards fled, leaving inmates screaming behind bars. In bathtubs and cells, their charred corpses were found huddled together, burned alive in a vain attempt at escape.

In all, 358 were killed in the worst jail fire in a century. For many, the tragedy is not a surprise. When it caught fire just 12 guards and 800 men lived in Comayagua prison, a space meant for 500. This overstretched system, activists say, was always a disaster waiting to happen.

In Honduras, an epidemic of gangland violence and Latin America’s highest murder rate have created an unforgiving justice system. Even a tattoo can land someone behind bars, where conditions are squalid, overcrowded and violent.

Now, as friends and families of the victims bury the dead, mounting anger has forced the Honduran government to promise a full investigation and a major programme of prison reform.

The effort is a new attempt to tackle an age-old question: how to deal with lawbreakers. The answer has not always been to put them in prison: in the Middle Ages, public shaming – locking people in ‘the stocks‘ in town squares, for example – was a more usual form of punishment and deterrent.

The first prisons were simple dungeons where criminals awaited trial or execution. Later, convicts were deported to penal colonies in places like Australia, or held in huge prison ships.

In the 18th Century, humanitarians like John Howard (who had himself been a prisoner of war) tried to encourage prison reform and to ensure that all prisoners should at least have basic rights. In the 19th Century, the mission of prisons came to include rehabilitation as well as punishment.

Today, prisons in many countries try to steer people away from crime with education and support. But success is not easy. In the UK, around half of all released prisoners go on to commit another offence.

Doing time

Some campaigners claim that harsh prisons like Comayagua just degrade and humiliate their inmates, driving them further from normal society and towards a life of crime. No matter what, dignity, respect and rehabilitation must lie at the centre of how we treat criminals.

The fire is obviously a tragedy, others reply, but prisons exist to punish people who have done terrible things. They must be unpleasant and challenging environments, to be avoided at all costs – not cozy rehabilitation hotels that let people get away with murder.

You Decide

  1. Is prison the best punishment for criminals? What else could replace it?
  2. Is tough justice a more effective response to criminality than patience, support and forgiveness?

Activities

  1. How would you sum up the mission of a criminal justice system in one sentence?
  2. Design a new kind of prison, designed to meet the needs of both punishment and rehabilitation.

Some People Say...

“Criminals do not deserve pity.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How many people are in prison?
Around 8.5 million people are jailed around the world, but the likelihood of being locked up varies from nation to nation. Despite having only 5% of the world’s population, for example, the United States has one quarter of its prisoners: 751 adults out of 100,000 there are in jail, compared to 88 in Germany, 151 in England, and a global average of 125.
Are there certain groups more likely to be found in prisons?
Prison populations are often indicative of wider trends in society. In America, for example, prejudice and poverty mean that an astonishing 25% of black children will witness their father being imprisoned. Many think this creates a vicious circle: deprivation andmarginalisation leads to crime and imprisonment, leading to more poverty and crime in a repeating cycle.

Word Watch

The Stocks
This medieval device was a series of wooden boards, that trapped a person by their hands and sometimes head. Kept immobile, the criminal would be displayed in a public place to bear the ridicule of the crowd, who would pelt them with rotten fruit or eggs.
Deterrent
As well as punishment and reform, prison serves to put people off committing crimes – to deter them from illegal activity. This word comes from the Latin de, meaning away, and terrere, to frighten, literally translating as ‘to scare away from’, or ‘discourage from’.
Marginalisation
Marginalised people or communities are pushed to the edges of society, due to discrimination, socioeconomic conditions or other factors that make it difficult to participate in things like employment or mainstream culture.

Subjects

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