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article imageRelatives of victims in Chile’s prison fire vow legal action

By Igor I. Solar     Dec 9, 2010 in World
Santiago - Angry relatives of the 81 inmates dead in the fire at the San Miguel Prison in Santiago de Chile announced today that they will sue the State for its responsibility in the tragedy.
Lorena Fries, director of the National Institute for Human Rights, after visiting the site of the fire and verifying the living conditions of the inmates, stated that it is highly possible that the relative's claims may result in international sanctions against Chile. "This tragedy was predictable," she said.
"This not only concerns the inhumane conditions in which prisoners live, but in the excessive number of inmates coming to prison. This is not solved only by building more prisons, but by addressing the social
Lorena Fries  Director of Chiles s Human Rights Institute anticipates international sanctions agains...
Lorena Fries, Director of Chiles's Human Rights Institute anticipates international sanctions against Chile because of inhumane conditions in Chile's prisons.(TV screengrab).
problems that cause so many prisoners in this country. "
said Fries in an interview with Bio Bio radio station (in Spanish).
The Supreme Court, which for years has denounced the insecurity and the risks faced by inmates in overcrowded Chilean prisons is preparing a report on what happened in the jail of San Miguel.
The frustration and anger of many of the relatives of the victims derives from the fact that several of the dead inmates had been arrested and were in jail for minor offenses. One young man had been condemned to 70 days in prison for selling pirated CDs in the streets. Another person that died in the blaze had been detained pending investigation for having killed a man who invaded his home in a violent robbery attempt. A third dramatic case is that of an alcoholic man who was fined for public drunkenness, could not pay the fine and was jailed for several weeks.
Crime statistics show that Chile ranks 38 in the world in quantity of people in prison (204 per 100.000; the USA is number one with 715 per 100.000). Some young petty criminals end up in jail for minor offenses and, because of insufficient infrastructure and crowded conditions, they share facilities with hardened criminals serving long term sentences. New legal measures under study could lower criminal responsibility to twelve years of age to deal with the increase of young offenders. This is expected to put further strain on the limited prison resources.
The minister of Justice, Felipe Bulnes has said "The government feels that society has asked loudly that
Felipe Bulnes  Chile s Minister of Justice is under strong pressure to explain the causes of the tra...
Felipe Bulnes, Chile's Minister of Justice is under strong pressure to explain the causes of the tragedy (TV screengrab).
criminals should be in jail,”
However, he hinted that perhaps there has been an excessive zeal in the repressive policies, which have caused an increase of 40 percent in the prison population in seven years, reported website (in Spanish).
Overcrowding in Chilean jails is estimated at about 70%. Additionally, personnel in charge of the custody of the inmates complain that prison staff is insufficient to properly care for the ever increasing prison population. Preliminary reports have indicated that at the time the fire started in the fourth floor of block 5 of the San Miguel prison only 4 guards were responsible for the care of about 1900 inmates.
A situation which aggravates the problems in the jails is that prisoners traditionally prepare their own food for which they need cooking utensils and portable stoves equipped with propane gas. Initial reports about the cause of the fire in San Miguel suggests that the fire started as the result of a fight between two inmates when one of them used a propane cylinder as a flame torch to attack and burn his opponent.
So far only 31 of the victims have been identified. The identity of the remaining 50 bodies is being investigated through dental records and DNA tests. The process may take several weeks. In the interim, angry relatives wait in desperation to recover the remains of their loved ones and inmates in other blocks of the burned prison and other prisons along the country have declared a hunger strike.
Inmates in Block #3 of the San Miguel Prison in Santiago are in a hunger strike (Huelga de hambre). ...
Inmates in Block #3 of the San Miguel Prison in Santiago are in a hunger strike (Huelga de hambre). (TV screengrab).
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