SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — El Salvador’s prisons are wretched, overcrowded hellholes, among the worst in Latin America, but for William Romero Cartagena a trip to prison would be a step up in life.
Romero is among 3,000 or so detainees currently housed in police station holding cells, unable to get remanded to one of the nation’s 19 prisons. The holding cells are even more crowded and ghastly than the prisons. Romero, 23, was accused a few months ago of extortion. Since then he’s been held in a cell that measures no more than 9 feet by 9 feet. It contains 23 men. It has no toilet. Feces are passed out on a plate for removal.
On a recent day, Romero stood grasping the cell’s bars. Behind him were shirtless men, sitting or squatting. One inmate lay in a homemade hammock fashioned from plastic shopping bags. “There’s no space here to sleep. Everybody has to just sit,” Romero said.
El Salvador’s penal system is in collapse. The prison overcrowding is of such magnitude that a State Department Human Rights Report issued in April described conditions as “harsh and life threatening.” It noted that at the end of 2012 the system had a capacity for 8,328 inmates but held more than three times that number — 27,038 inmates.
The police holding cells are at more than five times capacity. Built for 600 detainees, they held 3,400 in late August.