Twelve inmates die in Uruguay prison fire

July 8, 2010 12:11:34 PM PDT
Twelve inmates burned to death in an overcrowded prison on Thursday, just as Uruguay's congress is debating a law to put the army in charge of prison security and relieve the pressure on civilian prisons by moving some inmates into military installations.

A short-circuiting heater is believed to have caused the fire, which spread quickly to mattresses and wooden bed frames. Eight other inmates were hospitalized with serious burns. The prison built for 60 houses 120 inmates -- overcrowding typical in Uruguay's 28 prisons, Alvaro Garce, the parliamentary prison commissioner, told The Associated Press earlier this week.

President Jose Mujica -- a former leftist guerrilla who twice escaped from prison during Uruguay's dictatorship -- called for increased security and better conditions for inmates in a radio address on Tuesday.

"Clearly, the growth of the prison population in recent years has caused overcrowding that goes against human rights," he said. "How can we speak of rehabilitation if we have all kinds of inmates housed together and the better part of our prisons have become places where people are piled up?"

The president also wants to increase the army's role. Soldiers already guard prison perimeters, but Mujica wants 600 troops to inspect people and packages at the doors. "It is unbelievable what goes in and out," he said, referring to the drugs, weapons and cell phones found in prisons.

Mujica's proposal has the support of the Defense Ministry and Garce, who said "I think the presence of soldiers will provide immediate results."

UN Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak raised concerns about Uruguay's prison crowding and human rights violations in a highly critical report in March.


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