Not only are prisoners frequently subjected to brutal treatment in conditions of mass overcrowding and extraordinary squalor, but many jails are also themselves run by criminal gangs.
One result has been a recent rash of prison massacres and fires, some set deliberately.
Survivors said a group of inmates used a homemade flame-thrower, fashioned from a hosepipe and a gas canister, to set fire to a mattress barricade erected by a rival group in their barred cell.
San Miguel was not a high-security jail, and the victims of the worst prison fire in Chile’s history were all serving sentences of five years or less, for crimes such as pirating DVDs and burglary.
ON AUGUST 28th six members of the local Human Rights Council, an official watchdog, turned up at Romeu Gonçalves de Abrantes prison in João Pessoa, the capital of the state of Paraíba in Brazil’s poor north-east.
Inside they found filthy, overcrowded cells holding sick, thirsty prisoners, some with untreated injuries.
On September 17th more than 130 inmates used a tunnel to flee a prison at Piedras Negras, close to the border with the United States.
Earlier this month a gang leader vanished from Tocorón jail in Venezuela; in all, up to 100 of the country’s prisoners may have escaped in recent months.
Whereas relatives are submitted to humiliating strip searches at visiting time, it is no secret that the guns, drugs, mobile phones and other items that are available on the inside are trafficked by the national guard, which is responsible for perimeter security.
In Mexico prisoners do what they please in some jails run by local governments.
It came back with images of naked prisoners crowded into bare, unlit cells.
Though the guards said the inmates were being held like this “temporarily” because of a planned jailbreak, they had been there for four days. When the council members refused, all six were detained.
A quirk in Brazil is that the origin of the country’s most powerful gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), lies inside the prison system.