Honduras: the suffering of inmates packed in prison skyrockets during Covid-19

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

The most difficult part of the day is when the sun begins to set for Yerbin Estrada. The hundreds of prisoners of La Esperanza prison in central Honduras must leave its small courtyard and file back to their small cells.

“That is when the hell starts,” said the powerfully built and bearded 25-year-old, glancing a final time at the armed guards perched on the rooftop, silhouetted against the darkening sky.

Inmates look out of their prison cell after being locked in for the evening at Centro Penal de La Esperanza (La Esperanza Prison), in La Esperanza, Intibuca, Honduras. Image credit Adrees Latif

Throughout the night, packed into a room with 130 other people, Estrada listens to his neighbours’ inaudible whimpering as rats scuttle by.

Estrada is serving his fourth year of a six-year sentence for marijuana possession in La Esperanza, a low-security prison whose name, in Spanish, means hope, and located into the pine and oak-lined mountains of central Honduras.

Behind the bars, the ultimate law is that which reigns in Central America, a mantra sprayed onto walls in gang-controlled neighbourhoods: ver, oír, y callar. See, hear, and shut up.

“The best way to get out safe, is to keep your head down,” said Estrada, quiet and composed.

A whiteboard at the entrance keeps a daily tally. The top line never changes: “Prison Capacity: 70 convicts.” But the rows below of the actual number of prisoners tick up and down. Today’s number is 454.

Estrada exercises with a makeshift weight in the prison's courtyard. Image credit Reuters

The origins of the problems at La Esperanza prison throughout Latin America? “Harsh sentences for small crimes, lack of proper police investigation, and many detainees held without charge, often for years,” claims the prison’s director Jose López Cerrato.

The only amnesty is visiting days, when children, grandparents and wives breathe life into the courtyard, taking over the kitchen, playing ball, and praying with the inmates at religious services.

But as the pandemic took hold in Honduras, authorities banned any visit. And with exorbitantly expensive charges for calls from the prison’s three working phones, inmates are now all but cut off from the rest of the world.

In addition to the health risks posed by overcrowding, staff worry about the pandemic’s mental toll too.

“Forbidding relatives’ visits is the worst thing that can happen here. It’s what these people need most because, more than anything, it gives them hope to hold on to,” says Jacinto Hernández, La Esperanza’s psychologist. “I fear it could turn the situation violent as the virus spreads and anxieties skyrocket. Aggressions already run high; they barely have room to breathe.”

Israel Miranda, 35, embraces his mother Camilla during a visiting day. Image credit The Wider Image

Hernández estimates that about one-fifth of the male population already leaves with post-traumatic stress disorder that they did not have when they first arrived in jail.

Up until now, Honduras has had over 2,000 reported Covid-19 cases and 120 deaths, although most public health experts say those numbers are a likely underestimate.

So far, the country’s 29 prisons have largely been forgiven by the virus, but should it spread inside the crumbling system, the results could be devastating. Honduras’ prisons, designed for about 10,000 inmates, are home to nearly 22,000, according to recent statistics.

Built in 1937, La Esperanza’s imposing colonial-style blue and yellow structure sits across from the town’s main square, where young lovers steal furtive kisses on park benches.

Inmates line up with buckets as they wait to collect water for bathing and washing clothes from a large concrete storage container in the prison courtyard. Image credit The Wider Image

Water is only available a couple of times a week and, with just one shared bathroom, men bathe in the courtyard with cold water from buckets used to wash the clothes they drape overhead.

Respiratory illnesses are common, the result of sleeping on the ground exposed to the cold mountain air.

Most of the time the men in La Esperanza make crafts, lift makeshift weights or play cards to stay busy, waiting for another day to come.

Before the pandemic outbreak, family visitors would sell goods the men had made - hammocks, fishing nets, toy cars - to raise money for soap, coffee and cigarettes. They used to bring empanadas, fried chicken, and tamales as a relief from the meagre prison diet staples of rice and beans.

Convicts, lucky enough to have beds, and especially beds with curtains, would rent them out to prisoners with female visitors. “These visits keep tensions lower,” said Israel Miranda, 36.

Each of the windowless rooms is a dark labyrinth of improvised wood-and-plywood beds, with limbs protruding at every turn.

Catalino Rodriguez, 50, and Santos Primitivo, 23, lie in their sleeping quarters inside an over-crowded cell that they share with several other inmates. Image credit The Wider Image

Intibucá, where La Esperanza Prison is located, is one of Honduras’ poorest areas. Illiteracy is high; alcoholism pervasive. The most common crimes are estimated to be domestic violence, drug possession and homicide.

“It’s complicated to breathe, but summer is a real hell and you can feel everyone’s body sweating,” said Erlin Mendez, 27, who shares his 38-inch wide space with another inmate, who he says is in for murder after an alcohol-fuelled machete fight.

In another part of the prison there are the female inmates.

Under a rusty tin roof in an attached building, the women are sectioned off behind a chain-link fence. “It’s like being in a miserable zoo,” said Elian Martinez, a 39-year-old mother of three children who says she was wrongfully accused of fraud.

The one cell for six women has four beds and space for three people to stand. They get three hours of sunlight a week at an adjacent guard tower.

Tiburcio Hernandez, 33, embraces his children as they say goodbye after a visiting day. Image credit The Wider Image

In the men’s unit, 132 men sleep in a room with fewer than 50 beds. Newer inmates sleep wherever they can find a patch, often sharing the floor with cockroaches and rats. The wait for a bed? Around three years.

“You can never get used to this, just resigned,” Estrada claims. “Each day you wake up at 5 am, wait in line for water and food, try to survive. One day fewer, one day closer to family. This is how it is here.”

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