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Chile should immediately overhaul its prison system to end overcrowding and improve prison conditions, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a sequence of events on December 8, 2010, in the San Miguel prison in Santiago, a fire broke out after a riot, leaving 81 prisoners dead. In addition, 15 inmates, 5 guards, and a firefighter were treated for burns, according to press accounts. The San Miguel prison housed 1,900 inmates, despite the fact that it was built to accommodate only 1,000. President Sebastian Piñera and Justice Minister Felipe Bulnes called the fire a “tragedy” and said that the events in the prison on that day would be thoroughly investigated.

“The tragic deaths of 81 inmates are essentially the result of overcrowding and poor prison conditions, two longstanding problems in Chile,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It is critically important for the Chilean government to make overhauling the prison system a priority.”

In Chile’s most crowded prisons in 2010, at least two prisoners on average occupied facilities intended for a single prisoner. Domestic human rights reports, including a 2009 Supreme Court Report on Prison Conditions, have documented that in addition to overcrowding, several of Chile’s prisons have poor sanitation, ventilation, nutrition, and a lack of potable water. Despite conditions likely to cause ill-health and the spread of infectious disease, access to medical care in Chile’s prisons is inadequate.

Chile’s human rights obligations under both regional and international treaties require it to ensure that prisoners are treated humanely and with respect for their dignity. This includes ensuring that detention conditions are not degrading, and that prisoners have adequate access to health care. Prisoners do not forfeit all their rights upon incarceration, but only the right to liberty and those ancillary rights that are unavoidable in a closed environment.

A report issued in March by a government-appointed prison review commission says that the problems stem from delays in the construction of new facilities, the need for speedier processing of criminal cases, the use of harsher sentencing policies, and a failure to develop effective alternatives to prison.

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