Honduras fire should prompt international action on prisons

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If any good can come from the fire that claimed more than 300 lives in Honduras this week, the tragedy must serve as a wakeup call that in many parts of the world , prison systems  represent nothing less than a humanitarian disaster. In many prisons in low income countries, the ever present danger of fires is just one of the hazards that threaten the lives of inmates.  Bare cables hanging loosely out of crumbling walls are compounded by prisoners’ improvised efforts to divert a bit of current to heat food or power a radio. The acute risk of sudden fires is accompanied by chronic exposure to infectious disease and violence which are commonplace in many of the world prisons. While the horrors of life inside may have multiple causes, the most prominent is overcrowding and congestion.

The international community in general and donors in particular tend to shy away from prisons. Despite honourable exceptions such as Open Society’s work to reduce unnecessary pre- trial detention, penal reform is a relatively neglected field. Just as there are thought to be “no votes in prisons”, so investment in the penitentiary sector is seen to produce relatively few benefits and carry huge reputational risks.

A decent prison system is an essential component in upholding the rule of law, without which a stable democratic society cannot function. Prisons should be used sparingly, to hold suspects facing serious charges before a timely trial and as a sentence in cases so serious that no other penalty will suffice.   Too often they are not used in this way and do not fulfil their proper functions. This is an international institutional failure with dire consequences.  An international initiative is urgently needed to focus attention on that failure and to develop a sustainable programme of reform. Without such work it will be only a matter of time before the next disaster.


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