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The story behind Chile's prison fire

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

The situation has dragged on for decades. In 2001, then-President Ricardo Lagos promised to build 10 new prisons. Today, six of the 10 are operational, but they've done little to reduce overcrowding.

Meanwhile, judicial reform over the past decade, intended to speed up the criminal process and ensure the rights of defendants, ended up multiplying the prison population.

“Chile’s prisons are a human waste dump. No one cares about these people. Judges sentence them and don’t care where they are locked up. Public defense attorneys forget about them after trial, and Congress keeps approving new laws to create new crimes and increase sentences,” said Congressman Hugo Gutierrez, a former human rights lawyer who was able to enter the prison right after the fire.

Building new jails and improving conditions in existing ones “does not solve the crisis,” according to the Human Rights Institute. More rehabilitation, effective alternatives to incarceration and more opportunities for work are the key, the group says. Now, only 1.21 percent of the prison population has access to the prison system’s study and work centers, according to the prison police body, Gendarmeria.

However, President Sebastian Pinera will not back down from his “zero-tolerance” approach to crime and his pledge to “put a lock on the revolving door” in the prison system, which has brought cheers from a large part of the population whose main concern is crime, according to a recent Latinobarometro survey.

“We will not weaken our frontal and determined fight against crime,” Pinera said days after the fire. “But at the same time, we are fully aware that we need to improve the living conditions of those Chileans who are deprived of freedom.”

Immediately after the fire, Pinera tasked the Justice Ministry with coming up with a diagnosis of present infrastructure needs and costs and a proposal of urgent measures to improve the prison system. He also announced the construction of six new prison facilities. One alternative being examined is to set up metal-based modular temporary prisons while new ones are built.

But the president of the Supreme Court, Milton Juica, is skeptical. “The systems for alternative conflict resolution and conditional freedom do not work because of the strong message from politicians that ‘it’s best for everyone to be in jail.'" he said. "These are the consequences of that message.”