Salvadoran prisons: a hell made worse by exceptional mesaures

The very high levels of gang-related crime and violence in El Salvador have filled El Salvador's prisons to more than overflowing.    The prisons are literal hellholes holding thousands more prisoners than their capacity.   Not only are the conditions inhumane and in violation of international norms, but many persons subjected to those conditions have not been convicted of a crime but were swept up in one of the many sweeps by Salvadoran security forces.   And the government's "exceptional measures" have deliberately made conditions even more extreme.

These conditions prompted a rebuke last November by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.   In his remarks at the conclusion of his visit to El Salvador in November Zeid stated:
We are informed of the State’s efforts to fully control the country’s jails, through the Extraordinary Security Measures, which since April 2016 have placed thousands of people in prolonged and isolated detention under truly inhumane conditions, and with prolonged suspension of family visits. The vulnerability of these inmates is highlighted by an outbreak of tuberculosis, affecting more than a thousand inmates, with several hundred also said to be suffering from malnutrition. I called on the President to end the extraordinary measures and grant international independent organisations, including my Office, access to these detention centres.
The exceptional measures mentioned by Zeid consist of limiting the rights of prisoners in the jails that house gang members, eliminating family and lawyer visits, suspending judicial hearings, lengthy extended periods of time when inmates are confined to a single cell, harsh solitary confinement, and elimination of cell service around the prisons.   The measures were approved unanimously by the National Assembly in April 2016.

Yet despite the call from the UN's highest human rights official to repeal the measures, last week El Salvador's minister of justice and public security, Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde, asked the National Assembly to extend the exceptional measures for an additional year.    The minister asserted that the UN High Commissioner's report was based on misinformation, and though he admitted conditions in the prisons were inhumane, he denied that the exceptional measures were to blame. 

It is also important to realize that in El Salvador, a large percentage of persons confined in the prisons and subjected to these conditions have not been convicted of a crime.   El Salvador makes very limited use of pre-trial release, or release on bail as it might be seen in the United States or other countries.   Instead, pretrial detainees are housed in prisons with those already convicted.

In 2016, El Faro quoted the country's Human Rights Ombudsperson when she commented on prison conditions:
"The overcrowding…all in the same cell for 24 hours! It’s like…the torture facilities of the past. You would think that all of that was over. You would think that Hitler was a thing of the past. Once the doors are opened, what will we see?” 
The statement was from Raquel Caballero, Procuradora para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos – PDDH, who was left speechless as she tried to describe what she saw in the prisons where the government’s extraordinary measures have been implemented.
Beyond the simple brutalization of human beings which occurs in the prisons, the harsh conditions are having deadly consequences.   Statistics from the country's prisons reported by El Faro show that the number of deaths from tuberculosis and other illness in the prisons doubled from 2016 to 2017.  In addition, 68% of the deaths occurred in those prisons housing gang members where the exceptional measures are in place.

It is a measure of a society whether it can treat even those it is punishing for heinous crimes with decency.   El Salvador fails this test.

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