Another worrying point about the barbaric riots that took place in Ecuador’s Littoral Prison on 28 September was that, several days after the violence was over, the final death toll was still unknown and many victims were yet to be identified. .
The most recent report is that at least 118 prisoners died in the fighting, of whom at least six other prisoners were beheaded. By any standard, these are shocking figures and represent the worst death as a result of inter-prisoner violence in Ecuadorian prison history. The previous record was as recently as February, when 79 prisoners were killed in a series of riots in several prisons across the country.
In the midst of these record-setting riots, another 22 inmates were killed at Littoral Jail in July. This means that in less than a year, 0.5% of Ecuador’s prison population, which is slightly less than 40,000, has been murdered in these three sets of riots alone.
Mass killings as a result of inter-prisoner violence are not uncommon in the region. In 2019, more than 50 prisoners were killed, including 16 beheaded, in riots at a prison in Brazil’s Para province. Many more were killed in other riots in the prison system and in the years before that. In other words, while the number of deaths during a single incident in the recent riots in Ecuador is staggering, it marks another gruesome milestone in the increasingly deadly violence that plagues prisons in many South American countries.
What is at least as shocking as the deaths themselves is that no one can claim to be really surprised that they are happening. The reasons are well known. In most instances, they are the product of conflict between rival gangs and groups, with these groups typically being linked to criminal gangs operating within countries.
While the violence that does occur often stems from specific incidents within prisons, it is rarely the only reason. The prison is a tinderbox waiting to be ignited by a spark flying from friction between factions: the prisons have become just another “theatre” in which rival criminal gangs run for effect. And those sent to prison have little practical choice but to join a faction – to support it, and to be “protected” by it. Not being associated with a gang is likely to put a detainee at greater risk than being a member. Neutrality is rarely an option.
There is already something very bad (and there are many) about the prison system in which prisoners have easy access to guns and grenades and other such weapons. A lot is made up of prisons suffering from severe overcrowding in Ecuador – and this is certainly the case: prisons have about 133% of their capacity, making the situation even more difficult than would otherwise be the case.
After the most recent riots, the government has announced plans to reduce the number of prisoners in its prisons. While much welcome news, demands for the release of the elderly, women, people with disabilities, those suffering from terminal diseases and able to be deported are unlikely to make much dent in the overall problem of overcrowding. And it will have little effect on the prevalence of gang warfare in prisons. Relatively few of those released are likely to be held in high-security prisons such as the Littoral Peninsula. Relocation of people involved in recent violence to places created in other establishments is least likely to spread such violence as it is to be stopped.
It is an unfortunate truth that prison officials have far less authority than we believe in day-to-day life in prisons. As a result, while introducing increased measures of internal control may reduce violence in the short term, experience suggests it cannot be sustained for very long and the net effect is to induce even more violence in the long term. So what can be done?
Some suggest that the answer lies in keeping members of different gangs in different prisons, as opposed to having different wings usually in the same prison. But this is unlikely to be a practical option, as it would usually mean keeping some detainees away from their families and dependents, making them even more dependent on their gang membership and factions for day-to-day support. .
The real need is to break that dependence, by providing an alternative route through prison life – or alternatives to prison life – than those that reinforce reliance on gangs and cartels. There’s no point in being nave about the difficulty of doing so. The gangs that drive prison violence are usually deeply embedded in the communities from which the detainees come. They have a long and powerful reach, exercising authority over families, friends and vulnerable people, meaning that some captives may not be in a position to resist the demands and instructions of others.
The causes and solutions for extreme and systemic violence in prisons rarely occur in prisons. As important as prison reform is, that in itself will never be enough. Systematic and organized prisoner violence on this scale needs to be recognized for what it is: a reflection and replica of violence between anarchic groups within the wider community. Unless this is addressed, the jails where illegal gangs and cartels have been caught will continue to be prone to communal and deadly violence. And the state which keeps them there should take responsibility for it.