Crime & Justice

Waiting, sleeping outside an El Salvador prison

By Sara Acosta

San Salvador, May 24 (EFE).- A group of women with a months-old baby is using plastic to improvise a place to get out of the sun and rain, to rest and sleep on the sidewalk in front of a jail in El Salvador.

They, like hundreds of other people are hoping that their relatives, who have been arrested since the so-called “exceptional period” was decreed on March 27, soon will be released.

Outside the La Esperanza Penal Center, near San Salvador and known as Marina, there is traffic chaos and many people waiting there are clearly confused and uncertain. The same situation prevails at the Women’s Preventive and Sentence Fulfillment Center, located in the populous city of Ilopango and at the Izalco Penal Center.

These three prisons, according to local media, are the ones where more than 70,000 suspects are being held, many of them arrested for allegedly belonging to a gang or having some type of link with gangs, whom the government blames for the majority of the murders in El Salvador.

Every now and then at the La Esperanza prison, where only men are incarcerated, a few detainees are released, and thus relatives are waiting outside to see if their loved ones will be in the next batch to be set free.

El Salvador has been living under the “exceptional regime” since March 27 and it has been extended until the end of May, but it is forecast that the Legislative Assembly, at the request of President Nayib Bukele, once again will extend it this week.

The number of people arrested between March 27 and May 23 totals 34,216, according to figures provided by the National Civil Police (PNC).

A woman whose 23-year-old son is being held at La Esperanza, told EFE that she spent about $40 – a bit hit to her budget – on the so-called prison package.

She traveled more than 73 kilometers (45 miles) from the western province of Sonsonate to the prison to give her son personal hygiene items, food and medicine.

She said that her son “has nothing to do with gangs” and that she’s trusting in God that “he will be set free soon.”

The authorities at the prison are asking inmates’ relatives to provide specific items for their incarcerated loved ones: toothpaste, soap, toilet paper, detergent, razors, facemasks, cereal, oatmeal, powdered milk, sugar and other things.

In addition, relatives are asked to buy t-shirts, swim trunks, socks, towels and a sheet, all of them white.

A posted notice at the prison provides the list and, at the bottom, reads: “Given the economic situation of each family, it is not obligatory to bring all the items.”

On average, each person spends between $10 and $15 on the required items, not to mention what the food and medicines cost.

In El Salvador, for some years now prisoners – both men and women – must wear identical t-shirts, swim trunks or gym shorts and white socks, which must be purchased by their relatives.

Before delivering the package, people must stand in a long line for hours before they can enter an air conditioned place to provide information about their imprisoned loved ones.

There, a prison official provides the inmate’s cell number, pavilion number and a special code for each relative.

Mothers – some with small babies – grandmothers, sisters, aunts, girlfriends and others have spent days and weeks on the street outside La Esperanza.

“If they bring out (the detainees) and there’s no relative who answers for them, they put them back (into the jail),” said one adult woman who was accompanied by two young children.

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