Honduras Prison Fire Highlights Problem of Overcrowding in Jails

A homemade video circulating on Spanish-language news websites captures the sound of inmates at Honduras’ Comayagua prison screaming as they burned in Tuesday night’s fire.

Loud bangs can be heard throughout the video – likely the sound of gunshots fired into the air by prison guards who assumed the panicked inmates were trying to escape.

“Those poor people,” the narrator says. “My God, how they scream.”

By the end of the six-minute video, the screams had stopped. Caution: This video contains disturbing audio.

Tuesday night’s prison fire, which has left more than 350 dead, is highlighting the dire state of overcrowding in Latin American jails.

A 2010 report authored by Elías Carranza of the United Nations Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, found 25 of 29 Latin American prison systems studied were overcrowded.

Honduras’ prisons placed among the region’s most overcrowded, the study found, with an average of 141 prisoners for every 100 spaces available.

Those figures were collected from 2006 data – before an explosion of violence, largely related to drug trafficking and gangs - turned Honduras into the country with the world’s highest murder rate, at 82.1 homicides per 100,000 people, according to The Miami Herald.

In a list of 10 major prison fires in recent years compiled by the Associated Press (see below), seven occurred in Latin America and three of them in Honduras. Tuesday night’s fire at Comayegua was the most deadly in a century.

In interviews with the Associated Press, survivors described how the overcrowded conditions made it difficult to escape the fire.

Hector Daniel Martínez was asleep in a small metal bed, one of dozens stacked so high in a narrow barrack that they nearly touched the roof, when the flames started.

The fire raced above Martínez's head, and he could hear the screams of prisoners.

Martínez, 32 and a homicide suspect, ran toward the barrack's single entrance. The door was locked. Most of the other 135 prisoners in the room ran toward the other end, where there was a bathroom with water and sinks.

It turned out to be a fatal choice. Martínez survived after a nurse came with the keys and opened the door. He was only one of 28 inside the barrack who did.

"One hundred and seven are dead," he said, his face conveying little emotion, as if a toll too difficult to believe.

In all, the fire at an overcrowded prison in Honduras killed 358 people, officials confirmed Wednesday. The local governor said an inmate called her moments before the blaze and screamed that he was going to set the prison on fire.

Comayagua Gov. Paola Castro said she called the Red Cross and fire brigade immediately but firefighters said they were kept outside for half an hour by guards who fired their guns in the air, thinking they had a riot or a breakout on their hands.

As the investigation continued into the night, a group of inmates remained guarded by officers inside the prison grounds. They described a chaotic scene as the fire broke out and raced from one barrack to another, all filled with highly flammable curtains and mattresses.

When the fire was extinguished, all that remained of several barracks were the brick exteriors, painted with murals of Jesus Christ, saints and verses from the Book of Psalms. Inside, the metal cots, stacked four high and at least a dozen across, were charred and falling down.

At the end of each barrack was a bathroom with sinks and tubs. Wednesday evening, there were still numerous bodies inside several of the bathrooms.

In one large sink sat the bodies of two prisoners facing one another. Their remains were completely black.
Others were squished together, their bodies indistinguishable.

"In the other cells we found them in the same positions," said state prosecutor German Enamorado.

Selbim Adonay, 18, another homicide suspect, said he was trapped behind the metal door leading inside his barrack, unable to do anything as the flames spread and prisoners screamed.

"We couldn't do anything because we were locked inside," Adonay said. He was also released by the nurse.

Martínez said dozens of the prisoners in his barrack sought refuge from the heat in a bathroom, where the sinks and tubs were filled with water. Some may have tried climbing on top of one another to reach the roof, Enamorado said.

From the front entrance of the barrack, prisoners watched helplessly as the guard carrying the keys fled without opening the door.

"He threw the keys on the floor in panic," Martínez said, a dust mask hanging from his neck.

A prisoner who also served as a nurse picked up the keys and went from one barrack to another, opening doors in a barely survivable heat, Martínez said.

But by that time, it was already too late for hundreds of prisoners.

Some of deadliest prison fires around the world (Compiled by AP):

Feb. 15, 2012 — 358 people dead in fire at Comayagua prison in Honduras.

April 21, 1930 — 322 killed at Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, after fire starts on scaffolding. Most died of smoke inhalation when breakdown in command kept guards from unlocking cell doors. Worst prison fire in U.S. history.

March 7, 2005 — 136 male inmates killed in Higuey, Dominican Republic, after prison fight in which inmates set beds on fire. Prisoners accused of jamming cell locks and killing others trying to escape.

Jan. 3, 1994 — 108 people die after inmates set fire in Sabaneta prison in Venezuela.

May 17, 2004 — 104 inmates killed at dilapidated, overcrowded prison in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Police said fire was started by short circuit-sparked explosion.

April 5, 2003 — 86 prisoners die in fires set during riot at El Porvenir prison farm outside La Ceiba, Honduras.

Dec. 8, 2010 — 81 killed in fire begun during prison riot at San Miguel prison in Santiago, Chile.

Sept 15, 2003 — 67 inmates dead in worst prison fire in Saudi Arabian history, at maximum security al-HairPrison near Riyadh.

Nov. 1, 2002 — 50 inmates killed in fire at overcrowded Sidi Moussa Prison in coastal town of El Jadida, Morocco. Authorities blamed electrical short circuit for Morocco's worst prison fire.

Sept. 20, 2002 — 30 male inmates die at La Vega prison in Dominican Republic after mattresses are set ablaze during riot set off by surprise weapons inspection.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

Follow us on twitter.com/foxnewslatino
Like us at facebook.com/foxnewslatino