02/24/2012 12:22 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

Recent Prison Tragedies Highlight Multi-National Justice Issue

As the news of last week's prison fire at Comayagua, Honduras, is fading from the headlines, our hearts go out to the thousand-plus family members gathered near that facility trying to identify their loved ones among the 350 who were killed. Meanwhile, a fight broke out last Sunday in an overcrowded prison near Monterrey, Mexico, leaving 44 dead. And just this week, rioting inmates set fire to their prison in Bali in protest of conditions there.

The tragic loss of life at all of these facilities once again highlights the deficiencies of our barbaric approach to crime and punishment.

In Comayagua, we know that more than half of the men who died in the fire had not yet been tried, although they were imprisoned as common criminals in dreadfully overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. We may never know whether they were guilty or innocent. What we do know is that prison was their death sentence.

This is by no means unique to Honduras. Almost 10 million people are held in prisons around the world. Of those, it has been estimated that three million are awaiting trial. Some wait years before they are tried. Some become "lost" in the system.

Hundreds of prisoners around the world, many of them innocent, die every day from systemic violence, malnutrition, and untreated diseases like malaria, TB and HIV AIDS. Hundreds of thousands more suffer in severe conditions of overcrowding, lack of water and sanitation, and the benign neglect of societies that equate punitive imprisonment with justice.

And the overuse of prisons is not unique to the developing world. Almost half of the world's prisoners are held in the U.S., China, and Russia. America has the highest number of prisoners and the highest rate of imprisonment of any country. Roughly one in 100 adults in the U.S. is in prison -- more than seven times the imprisonment rate in Europe -- for a total of 2.3 million. The difference isn't due to the crime rate, it's because the U.S. sends people to prison for longer sentences than other countries. This is also a disaster of epic proportions because we know that when their time is done, the majority of released prisoners will reoffend. Prisons are not equivalent to justice being done.

When harsh confinement and security are the paramount concerns governing the treatment of prisoners, disasters like Comayagua, Monterrey and Bali are inevitable. We can hardly blame poorly-trained prison guards for their failure to respond quickly and appropriately. We can hardly blame the prison system for woefully inadequate and inhumane facilities. And we can hardly blame the inmates for demanding humane treatment.

The reality is that prisons are a reflection of us. Our treatment of prisoners mirrors our values and sense of justice. Comayagua should be a wakeup call for all of us in regard to how we treat offenders and a summons to do justice that goes beyond crime and punishment. Monterrey reminds us that we should be able to do more to rehabilitate offenders and prevent an escalation of crime and violence. And Bali is a cry for help from prisoners who are tired of being treated as less than human.

We can't keep doing prison the same way and expecting different results -- that is the definition of insanity. Let's use Comayagua, Monterrey, Bali and the thousands of prisons around the world just like them to compel us to call for change, and consider if there is something we as individuals can do to make a difference.

Ron Nikkel is president of Prison Fellowship International, the world's largest and most extensive criminal justice ministry with 124 affiliates around the world, overseeing 50,000 volunteers. Prison Fellowship International is working through its Honduras affiliate to assist the families of those who died in the fire and to help the surviving prisoners. For more information please contact or 703-481-0000.