TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Honduras' 24 prisons are controlled by inmates because the state has abandoned its role in rehabilitating people convicted of crimes, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said in a report released Friday.
The commission said the prisons are so poorly guarded that the inmates could escape if they wanted to, especially in the prison in the city of San Pedro Sula.
"Prisoners do not escape because they prefer not to upset this balance," the former director of the San Pedro Sula prison told the commission.
Another prison official told the commission that prison authorities there have no power to change the situation.
The commission conducted the report following a fire last year at the Comayagua prison that killed 362 inmates. In the report, the commission urged the government to investigate "both the theory that the fire was the result of an accident, as well as a hypothesis that might find criminal motives."
The commission said that one consequence of the state abandonment of the prisons is the rise of so-called systems of "self-governance" that are headed by inmates known as "coordinators."
The coordinators are picked by the inmates and set rules for the prison, including disciplinary measures, it said.
Most of the complaints by inmates are against the coordinators for physically assaulting them, something that happens "in full view of prison guards," according to the commission.
"The administration of the prisons in Honduras currently suffers from severe structural deficiencies which have led to its collapse," the commission said.
Official corruption and overcrowding have exacerbated the critical situation, prison officials have acknowledged. They say much of the overcrowding is due to failures in the judicial system to try prisoners. About half of all inmates are awaiting trial.
The government says there are 12,263 people incarcerated in Honduras even though its prisons can only hold 8,120 inmates.
In Honduras, there is a Lord-of-the-Flies system that is mimicked throughout the nation allowing inmates to run businesses behind bars, while officials turn a blind eye in exchange for a cut of the profits they say is spent on prison needs.
This culture virtually guarantees that little is likely to change, even in the glare of international scrutiny over last year's fire at Comayagua prison.
The commission recommended in the report presented to President Porfirio Lobo in Tegucigalpa that the government focus not only on the construction of new jails and improving existing ones, but also on adopting "genuine public policies much broader in scope. "
"It is essential that States' criminal policies not be merely repressive, but should also be preventive in nature, with policies and programs for crime prevention," the commission said.
Last year, the government allocates a budget of $19.3 million to the prison system, 83 percent of that money went to pay the salaries of prison staff.