The story behind Chile's prison fire

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.”

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.”