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No one should burn in prison

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 11:32 AM EST, Thu February 16, 2012
A woman cries outside the National Prison compound in Comayagua, Honduras, after a devastating fire.
A woman cries outside the National Prison compound in Comayagua, Honduras, after a devastating fire.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In central Honduras, more than 300 inmates burned or suffocated to death in a prison
  • Frida Ghitis: In 21st century, we cannot force prisoners to live in medieval conditions
  • Countries rich and poor are guilty of prison disasters, Ghitis says
  • She says that regardless of their crimes, prisoners deserve to be treated humanely

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

(CNN) -- In central Honduras, more than 300 inmates burned or suffocated to death in a prison. One can only imagine the cries of those trapped in their cells, while no one could find a key to let them escape the flames. We can only try to comprehend the agony of the prisoners' parents, children, relatives or friends as they saw the images on television, wondering whether their loved ones survived or, if they died, how much they suffered in their final moments.

The horrific tragedy at Honduras, a small impoverished country in Central America, brings to the forefront an issue that has long been ignored: Abysmal prison conditions.

Fire one of the worst incidents of its kind in Latin America

Across the world, in rich and poor countries alike, many people who are sentenced to prison suffer unspeakable conditions. Even if we assume that those incarcerated have gone through a fair trial, nothing justifies condemning individuals to live below the minimum level of human decency.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Even in normal times, few people have the inclination to worry about the dregs of society -- those who have been locked away because they have committed crimes. But our own humanity says we must do something. In the 21st century, we cannot force prisoners to live in medieval conditions.

Inhuman prison standards have become the human rights violation of our time, neglected by those who make a lot of noise about freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Scores of countries are routinely violating international agreements on the treatment of prisoners without facing any consequences. It's time for that to stop.

Dignified and humane treatment of prisoners -- including fire prevention measures -- should become a requirement for good standing in the international community.

Nasty, harsh, overcrowded: Life in a Honduran prison

Whether this week's prison fire started accidentally or was deliberately set, the moral and probably the legal responsibility of this tragedy lies with the authorities whose duty it was to guard and, yes, protect the prisoners, no matter what their crimes were.

Almost 300 die in Honduras prison fire

Honduras has a shameful history of prison disasters, followed by promises of reform, and then more disasters. More than 100 inmates died in a 2004 prison fire, and 86 died in a 2003 prison riot. The abysmal conditions of the prisons have caused these catastrophes.

But Honduras is hardly alone.

A few years ago, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner toured prisons in France and labeled some of them as "dungeons." He described two of the facilities as "on the borderline of human dignity." Hundreds of prisoners have committed suicide in France in recent years.

In the U.S., Human Rights Watch says in many facilities, imprisoned and detained individuals -- who may not have been tried or found guilty of any crime -- "confront conditions that are abusive, degrading and dangerous." For example, authorities and the public have often held a casual if not dismissive attitude toward prison rape and the murder of sexual offenders by other inmates. If a society wants to sentence anyone to death, it should defend that decision through formal channels, not let prisoners do the dirty work.

Some of the biggest prison populations are in Russia and China. Many Chinese prisoners endure brutal hard labor producing goods the country then sells for profit. Russian prisons are notorious for deputizing inmates to brutally enforce discipline. Diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis are rampant, as is malnutrition.

In many countries, tough tough drug laws have triggered an explosion in prison population, creating a condition of overcrowding and all that follows.

A growing menace is drug gangs. Some authorities have lost control of what goes on inside the prisons to gangs. I once met a prison guard in Peru who told me he would be afraid to step in the yard of the prison where he worked. As a result, gangs rule, sometimes in "Lord of the Flies" fashion, demanding payment and loyalty from fellow prisoners in exchange for protection from violence or rape, and even for food and water.

A little more than a year ago, the Security Minister of Honduras remarked that prisons have become "universities of crime." Inmates may be jailed for minor crimes, but after years of abuse, they emerge as hardened criminals, who will exact payment from society. And that payment will hurt. Honduras urgently needs to review its prison facilities, relieve overcrowding and improve safety standards.

Unjustified deaths in prison occur practically everywhere. The measure of our humanity is how we treat those not in a position to defend themselves. Regardless of their crimes, prisoners deserve to be treated humanely.

Consider the hundreds of people crying for their lives in that Honduran prison, or in other prisons around the world. A civilized, moral society should do everything in its power to prevent such suffering. And any country that allows it to go on should feel the pressure to change.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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