Salvadoran prisons: a portrait of extraordinary cruelty

Marien Rivera, Program Officer, DPLF

Old steel door that open to the outside.

Juan turned twenty years old a month ago. As a birthday present, his mother got a lawyer to transfer him from Izalco to Apanteos, both prisons in El Salvador. Juan has already been in custody for a year and a half, yet his trial has been postponed for the third time. Officially, he is being accused of belonging to a “Barrio 18” extortionist gang cell, although, in reality, Juan’s most serious “offense” is inhabiting the impoverished neighborhood of Las Palmas. This is a common scenario resulting from massive raids against young people pigeonholed as gang members. Two years ago, a series of “extraordinary measures” were implemented in prisons. As a result, transfers of prisoners to their own hearings were suspended, family visits were canceled and commissaries closed; since then, inmates have no access to most essential goods. From the time Juan entered prison, his only clothes have been the very same briefs he was wearing at the time of his arrest. Everything else was taken away. When available, he uses water solely for his personal hygiene. In Izalco, Juan shared a tiny cell with other sixty inmates, thus, it was not uncommon to be forced to spend twenty-four hours a day with portions of his body hanging outside the prison cell. Despite the unbearable overcrowding, due to these new measures, authorities drastically reduced patio hours: they were allowed to step out of their booths three times a week, just for an hour. Upon his arrival at Apanteos, Juan was diagnosed with advanced stage tuberculosis, but there is no available treatment for him. His chances of reaching twenty-one are growing slimmer every day. Like Juan, at least another 18,000 inmates are awaiting trial;[1] most of them are young people under 25 years of age, holding no more than basic education, branded as gang members.[2]

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