Playing with Fire

“The preliminary cause we have is an accident; the ideas of some kind of criminal intent, as well as a short circuit, have been ruled out,” said Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla.

Just days after the Honduras prison fire was blamed upon an aggravated inmate, the finger of blame has turned towards the authorities. While official investigations continue to search for the exact cause of the fire, the reason that 359 prisoners died comes as an inevitable consequence of intolerable prison conditions. In cells designed for no more than 500 prisoners, at the time of the fire, there were over 800 inmates. This is commonplace in a country with the world’s highest murder rate, where all 24 prisons are overcrowded, and 107 people prisoners were left dead in the San Pedro Sula prison fire of 2004.

Since the fire of 2004, steps have been made towards reform in Honduras’ criminal justice system. The overflow of Mexico’s drug trafficking onto Honduras’ streets has led to an area engulfed by gang warfare. In order to combat this, authorities applied a zero tolerance policy to anyone associated with a gang. Though this appears to be a positive step, the result of the policy has led to the unjust imprisonment of many innocent civilians. Those who have gang tattoos, yet who have not been associated with criminal activity, can be locked up without conviction. In fact, in the Comayagua prison, which hosted the fire, only 397 of 858 inmates had been convicted. The innocent until proven guilty were stuck in a political limbo that rapidly turned into hellish fire.

International assistance has worked in conjunction with the Honduras government in an attempt to fight the problems. The election of President Porfirio Lobo in 2009 was marked by the US implementing a series of counter-narcotics initiatives.  While these initiatives may be a good short term solution, the lingering unemployment rates indicate that the long term health of Honduras requires more radical, revolutionary reforms. The overcrowding of the prisons will only be reduced by the increase of employment and education opportunities and this can only be made possible if the wealth of Honduras is spread more evenly amongst all members of society. Without opportunity to change and develop, the civilians of Honduras see crime as their only option for survival.

The prisoners of Comayagua prison were not given the opportunity to escape the fate of the condemned. As the fires blazed, inmates were left trapped, with guards reported to have fled the scene, carrying with them the cell keys. The inmates were robbed of their humanity, seen as criminals rather than people. Fire-fighters were prevented from entering the prison as the captivity of the inmates had to be ensured. Jaime Silva, the Comayagua fire chief, said in an interview, “They have rules, and they were insistent that we follow them”.

In a telling development, the only person to come out of this fiasco positively was a prisoner. Marco Antonio Bonilla has been pardoned from his murder sentence for putting his life in extreme danger to release the prisoners that the guards had left for dead. The humanity of the man has been recognised; now only through effective and radical reforms can the other prisoners have their humanity recognised and justice be restored.

John C

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York PEN has begun. (Meeting no. 1)

And so it begins…

I’m Seb B-W, the chief moderator of the York PEN blog, alongside Jo, John, Carys and Amy. Our task, I suppose, is to keep a full historical record of York PEN’s progress, track its events, successes, and future plans. But alongside the documentary function of the blog, it is for the members of York PEN to express themselves, to post their own photographs of events, to post their own articles about the problems we are engaged with, to analyse and discuss the work of prison writers, and to post work they have found.Thus, while the facebook group is for discussing campaigns, meetings and progress (and the twitter group allows for an easy-to-follow summary of all three), the blog is for a more fleshed-out, personal response. As moderators, censoring your work would certainly be rather anti-PEN – we’ll just be making sure things are posted and that the blog stays together.Wednesday (16/2/12) saw the first meeting, and a very promising turnout. Juno Fitzpatrick, a 3rd-year undergraduate from the Kings London PEN group, brought with her a variety of ways in which to ‘raise awareness’, but do so with style, and in a way that isn’t a chore. Their performance of Another Sky last March, and letter writing to the sound of the Portico Quartet were huge successes. Such creativity is exactly what we need to promote and maintain.

So, while we’re still finding our feet, here’s to a positive start, and hopefully some positive ends.

Some useful links