One of the more distressing things about the savage riots that engulfed the Litoral prison in Ecuador on September 28 was that, several days after the violence was brought under control, the final death toll was still unknown and many of the victims had still to be identified.
The most recent reports are that at least 118 inmates died in the fighting, at least six of whom had been beheaded by other inmates. By any standard, these are shocking figures and represent the worst death toll resulting from 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 between these record-setting riots, another 22 prisoners were killed at the Litoral prison in July. This means that in less than a year, 0.5% of the Ecuadorian prison population, which is a little under 40,000, has been murdered in these three sets of riots alone.
Inter-prisoner violence resulting in mass killings is not uncommon in the region. In 2019, over 50 detainees were killed in a riot in a prison in Para Province, Brazil, including 16 who were decapitated. Many more were killed in other riots across the prison system as a whole in that, and in preceding years. In other words, while the number of deaths during a single incident in the recent riots in Ecuador is shocking high, it is merely 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 nobody can truly be claimed to be shocked that they are taking place. The causes are well known. In most instances, they are the product of conflicts between rival gangs and groups, these groups usually being linked to criminal gangs operating within the countries more generally.
While the violence that takes place is often sparked by particular incidents occurring within the prisons, rarely is this the sole reason. The prison is a tinderbox waiting to be ignited by sparks flying from the frictions between the factions: prisons have become merely another “theatre” in which rival criminal gangs jostle for influence. And those sent to prison have little practical option but to join a faction – to support it, and to be “protected” by it. Not being associated with a gang is likely to place a detainee at greater risk than being a member. Neutrality is rarely an option.
There is something already deeply dysfunctional about a prison system (and there are many) in which inmates appear to have easy access to guns and grenades and other such weapons. Much is made of the prisons in Ecuador suffering from serious overcrowding – and this is certainly the case: the prisons are at roughly 133% of their capacity, making conditions even more difficult than would otherwise be the case.
In the aftermath of the most recent riots, the government has announced plans to reduce the numbers of inmates in its jails. Though very welcome news, seeking to release the elderly, women, those with disabilities, those with terminal illnesses and those able to be deported is hardly likely to make much of a dent in the overall problem of overcrowding. And it will have very little impact on the prevalence of gang warfare that is rife in prisons. Relatively few of those to be released are likely to be housed in the high-security prisons such as the Litoral penitentiary. Transferring those involved in the recent violence to spaces created in other establishments is at least as likely to spread such violence as it is to contain it.
Loss of control
It is the unfortunate truth that prison authorities have significantly less authority over the day-to-day life in prisons than they would have us believe. As a result, while introducing heightened measures of internal control might dampen down violence in the short term, experience suggests that this cannot be maintained for very long and the net effect is to prompt even more violence in the longer term. So what can be done?
Some suggest the answer lies in holding members of different gangs in different prisons, as opposed to different wings in the same prison as is usually the case. But this is unlikely to be a practical option, as it would usually mean holding some detainees further from their families and dependents, making them even more reliant on their gang membership and factions for day-to-day support.
The real need is to try to break that dependency, by providing alternative routes through prison life – or alternatives to prison life – than those that reinforce dependency on gangs and cartels. There is no point being naive about the difficulty of doing this. The gangs that drive the prison violence are usually deeply embedded in the communities from which the detainees come. They have a long and powerful reach, exercising power over families, friends and others who are vulnerable, meaning that some detainees may be in no position to resist the demands and instructions of others.
The causes of, and solutions to, extreme and systemic violence in prisons rarely lie only in prisons. Important as prison reform is, on its own it is never going to be enough. Systemic and organised prisoner violence on this scale needs to be recognised for what it is: a reflection and replication of the violence between lawless groups within the broader community. Unless and until that can be addressed, prisons that are overfilled by those caught up with illegal gangs and cartels will remain at risk of erupting into communal and deadly violence. And the state that puts them there must take responsibility for that.
Malcolm Evans does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.