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The story behind Chile's prison fire

Inmates in Chile's prisons are crammed together and potable water is scarce.

Chile prison
A police officer keeps watch from an observation tower at the Colina 2 prison, April 26, 2009. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

SANTIAGO, Chile — The fight began over a few feet of space. A couple of hours later, 81 inmates were dead in the worst prison fire in Chilean history.

Conditions in Chile's prisons have been deplorable for decades, and last week's disaster highlighted the problems. There's plenty of blame being tossed around — but not many solutions.

The brawl began after prisoners spent hours drinking homemade alcohol. A dispute ensued over control of what inmates called the “VIP cell,” a more spacious holding area.

During the conflict, one of the prisoners grabbed a hose attached to a gas cylinder and used it as a blowtorch. Within minutes, flames caught on mattresses, blankets and clothing and spread quickly throughout the fourth floor of one of the wings.

The courts are investigating claims that prison police waited an hour before calling the fire department while 66 inmates burned to death and another 15 suffocated. Many of the victims were first-time offenders and most were under 30. 

Why did the inmates have gas cylinders in their cells in the first place? Because of the poor quality and distribution of prison food, inmates often cook food brought by their families in their own cells, mostly with portable gas stoves.

The San Miguel prison, like many in Chile, is plagued by extreme overcrowding and miserable sanitary conditions. Chile has the highest number of prisoners proportional to its population in the region — more than 250 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Human Rights Institute, an autonomous government body charged with reporting on the country's human rights situation.

Supreme Court attorney Monica Maldonado called the prison system a "time bomb."

In a report on prison conditions last year, Maldonado found that some prisons have potable water only a couple of hours a day, a hundred prisoners share one usually infested toilet and the population in some jails easily doubles their capacity. For example, the Buin prison on the outskirts of Santiago is designed to hold 70 inmates, but last year it held 500.

Prisoners spend too many hours locked up in their cells, there are scant possibilities for rehabilitation and they are not grouped according to the gravity of their crimes, because there is simply no space, according to the report.

One of the inmates who died in the fire, Bastian Arriagada, 21, was serving a 61-day sentence for selling pirated CDs on the streets, alongside convicted rapists and drug traffickers. Another of the victims was in jail because he had been unable to pay a fine for a petty crime.

Some prisons use tiny, cement cells without ventilation, lighting or toilets as punishment cells for up to 10 days, according to the report. Sometimes up to six prisoners are jammed into one, a situation Maldonado described as “cruel and degrading treatment.”