United States: how the US imposes the worst of its prison paradigm abroad

The new federal penitentiary in Santa Barbara, Honduras, occupies a strip of land between a highway and cloudy, forested hills. “El Pozo,” or The Pit, as it’s known, is surrounded by barbed wire and has two additional checkpoints beyond the first gate. It’s a maximum-security facility, one of three that have popped up since 2009. Before these were built, Honduras had no maximum-security prisons. El Pozo is one of the products of a United States international prison management program that infuses Latin American penitentiary cultures with some of the most inhumane aspects of US prison systems, and provides no benefit in terms of real security.

At least $22 million have been devoted to a US international prison program focused mainly on Central American prisons. This program operates out of a web of government offices and programs, most prominently the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) of the US State Department. Because of the extent to which information is classified, it is difficult to track exactly what prison management entails, but it’s clear that the US has in some way been involved in the prison systems of at least 34 countries. US activities include training, imparting management strategies and building new prisons.

The sprawling El Pozo is a departure from Honduras’s prisons before 2009, when the US prison program began in Honduras. It looks exactly like a US prison – it even has a disabled parking spot (unlike, unfortunately, almost any other building in Honduras). Just 15 kilometers away from El Pozo in the city of Santa Barbara, the local, pre-2009 prison is more typical. Located one block from the city’s main square, it is a nondescript yellow building built on a steep hill, marked only by a hand-painted sign. The sidewalk outside is occupied by pedestrians and vendors selling goods under awnings. Prison policy permits regular family visits, and family may bring food and some other items. Compared to many US prisons, the prison at Santa Barbara is relatively open to the outside community. This is the type of prison that, with the advent of the US program, has now been deemed inadequate for many of Honduras’s incarcerated people.

Indeed, Honduran prisons have long been home to corruption and violence. It is a common occurrence for dozens of incarcerated gang members to escape all at once while guards look the other way, or for an unchecked fire to massacre hundreds. Many of the elites of organized crime remain involved in criminal enterprise while on the inside. The right-wing Honduran government chooses not to view these problems as symptoms of broader societal corruption and impunity, but instead as an issue of weak prison facilities.

Cesar Cáceres, a Honduran government official and president of the country’s National Committee to Prevent Torture and Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment (or CONAPREV), suggests that the old prison buildings and lack of technology were to blame for the problems of Honduras’s prisons in the past. “If it wasn’t the worst, it was one of the worst prison systems in Latin America because there wasn’t new infrastructure,” said Cáceres. His viewpoint is typical of the state narrative. “Disgracefully, due to the lack of control, supervision and development, the system gave way to the creation of practical self-governance,” Cáceres said. The notion that prisoners govern themselves implies that the prisoners have control behind the walls, and that the state is more victim than complicit perpetrator.

This type of justification is used to pave the way for the US government to step in. The US began work on prisons with Honduras’s government before the illegal coup of 2009. The first collaborative construction project was a maximum-security section of already existing La Tamara prison near Tegucigalpa. The new section is known as “La Maquila.” The US controlled the design and construction of this facility, and loaned the funds needed to build it.

Despite many serious human rights abuses after the 2009 coup, the US continued to work with the coup-imposed government, putting to use decades of experience with the mass incarceration of its own low-income, Black and Brown communities. The coup opened Honduras to more intense US intervention, as the entire country grew more and more militarized. In 2014, the Honduran prison system passed into military control.

Around the same time, the new maximum-security prison known as El Pozo was completed, and a prison known as El Pozo II soon followed. These were announced with lurid headlines in Honduran newspapers, like “El Pozo is a Hell for Gangsters,” or “Even Prisoners Faint when They Arrive at El Pozo II.” Construction is currently stalled at a similar facility in Naco. Karen Spring of the Honduras Solidarity Network explains, “The shift in the prison culture is directly linked to the security policies that came as a result of the coup.”

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