Monday, February 20, 2012

Mexico, Central American prison and jail problems make ours look petty

Just to keep Texas' prison and jail problems in perspective, in Honduras 358 or more inmates died last week in a prison fire, while yesterday in Monterrey, an affluent-business oriented town a two-hour drive from the Rio Grande, at least 44 were killed and guards were taken hostage during feuds between rival cartel members housed in the same facility. (According to the Austin Statesman, Los Zetas forces massacred prisoners associated with the Gulf Cartel "then staged a mass escape.") Indeed, for those keeping score at home, it's worth adding to the tally that in December 2010, prison officials helped 140 inmates escape through the front gate of a prison in Nuevo Laredo.

Texas prisons face much different challenges than Mexican or Central American ones. Ours mostly involve paying for the Legislature's mass-incarceration policies and preventing even more expensive prison building, with a little contraband-related corruption around the edges. But unlike in Mexico or, say, California, Texas has enough prison capacity (barely) to house the prisoners it incarcerates. By contrast, the facility which endured yesterday's riot in Monterrey was horribly overcrowded: "The prison, built to house some 1,700 inmates is jammed full with some 2,700 prisoners."

Meanwhile, the escape in Nuevo Laredo assisted by prison officials shows how corruption problems complicate all these other challenges. I don't know what prison-guard pay is in Mexico, but if it's anything like what Mexican cops receive, it isn't much. Mexican prison corruption, though, typically goes much deeper than just line staff.

As for the fire in Honduras, I've heard many a Texas Sheriff grouse about the Commission on Jail Standards flunking their facility's inspection over faulty sprinkler systems and fire alarms, which some (especially rural) jail administrators consider relatively petty violations. But when 358 people die locked up in jail as a fire consumes them, it doesn't seem so petty. And overcrowding played a role as well. Paul Kennedy picked up on the fact that "At the time of the fire there were 856 inmates in a facility designed to hold but 500. Even more appalling is the fact that more than half the inmates at the prison were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members."

This blog focuses on criminal-justice reform in Texas because I live here. But it's important to recognize things could be much, much worse and some of these annoying bureaucratic dicta and inefficiencies that prison and jail administrators complain about actually serve to make everybody much safer. Just look south to see what happens without them.

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