Chile prison fire warns world of overcrowding dangers

8 Dec

San Miguel prison in flames

Described as the worst tragedy in the history of Chile’s prison system, a large fire that broke out in a Santiago jail earlier today has killed 83 prisoners, and President Sebastián Piñera has warned the number may rise.

It is believed that the blaze at San Miguel jail was started when inmates set their mattresses alight after a fight between rival gangs got out of control. The scene outside has been described as chaotic, as police try to placate hundreds of relatives who have gathered to find out whether their loved ones have survived.

This sad event should warn governments of the risk of overcrowding in prisons, a long-standing issue in Chile which, according to Amnesty International, has the highest per capita rate of prisoners in Latin America. San Miguel jail has a capacity of 1,100 prisoners (and by some estimates only 700) but it housed 1,960 inmates when the fire broke out. Not only does overcrowding mean a higher risk of violence with more inmates living at close quarters than is advisable, but in this case it will also have greatly hindered the evacuation effort.

A cry for help from a trapped inmate

Piñera is wise to turn this tragedy into a call for reform and an opportunity to end prison overcrowding in a country that had its image boosted so effectively by the San José miners rescue a few months ago. He is quoted by the BBC as saying: “We are going to speed up the process to ensure our country has a humane, dignified prison system that befits a civilised country.”

Distressed relatives fear the worst

But if only we could claim to have such a humane system in the UK where we certainly consider ourselves ‘civilised’ but still have overcrowded prisons. In 2009 our prisons were found to be overcrowded by an average of 150%. In England and Wales there are currently 85,393 inmates out of a maximum jail capacity of 86,897. The Coalition has pledged to cut the number of prisoners by 3,000 by 2014. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a tragic accident of massive proportions to speed along the process here also.

Images 1 & 2: BBC

Image 3: Reuters


One Response to “Chile prison fire warns world of overcrowding dangers”


  1. New data: Overcrowding in Chilean jails revealed « HispanicLondon - December 11, 2010

    […] Dec Following Wednesday’s comment piece on the deadly prison fire in Santiago, the following figures have come to light, revealing the full […]

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