The cost of neglect: riots erupt in a Mexican prison

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Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

- Lord Acton

The role of a federal penitentiary is to clear our streets of crime and corruption by detaining those who have failed to conduct themselves within the confines of the law and condition them to pursue a course of legal sanity. However, when a justice system proves just as corrupt, there is no one to defend the incarcerated.

Along with law-abiding citizens, prisoners have legal rights which they are entitled to under any and all circumstances. Unfortunately, rights such as the right to be free from inhumane conditions, cruel and unusual punishment and the right to complain about prison treatment and conditions have been denied in Tijuana's La Mesa penitentiary. This has not gone unnoticed.

In early 1990, Mexico's national Human Rights Commission highlighted La Mesa as a site of corruption, inmate self-governance, drug trafficking, mistreatment, mixing of male and female prisoners, and convicts and non-convicts, lacking educational and rehabilitative programs and as using torture to obtain information. Whether officials were unwilling or unable to resolve these problems is unknown, but the results of this neglect erupted in two dangerously chaotic riots last week. They led to the deaths of 23 inmates, with scores injured and have left 11 victims in critical condition in Tijuana's General Hospital.

The first riot began during normal visiting hours on Sept. 14 due to the death of 19-year-old Israel Marquez Blanco, who was beaten to death during a routine drug and weapon search the previous day. In the week previous to this event, another inmate had been unjustifiably killed by police officials. According to inmates' relatives, the second riot unravelled Sept. 17 in objection to restrictive conditions of food and water and torture which were imposed in consequence of Sunday's riot. Soldiers were brought in to assist prison officers, fires raged and bullets soared as prisoners shouted demands and held written slogans pleading, "no more dead," and, "the guards are assassins," in attempts to reclaim their denied rights.

In the quest for justice, it's no surprise that these inmates felt muzzled when it came to voicing their concerns. La Mesa, originally built in 1952 to house 600 inmates, later expanded to hold 3,000 and now interns over 8,000. With so much expansion to cope with, it's no wonder that issues of negligence have been slipping under the radar.

"This is the situation that provoked the riots of Sunday and Wednesday," state human rights ombudsman Francisco Sanchez Corona explained. "Nonetheless, the lack of a response on the part of the authorities could provoke a third inmate riot."

Thus far, Baja California Governor Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan has announced the firings of three high-ranking officials for administrative negligence and has obtained arrest warrants for two prison officers who are suspected of murdering Blanco last Saturday.

With these events in mind, it's horrendous to think that officials who are insensitive to the rights of inmates have the corrupt power to institute these obviously inhumane conditions and treatments to the point where extremism is the only option. Inmates have the right to air their issues in court, however, the court officials are essentially the people who, for however long an inmate is detained, have the power to ignore their concerns because the inmate is, after all, in jail for a reason. In order for inmates to obtain the justice they deserve, no matter the reason for their detainment, they should have the right to face-to-face interviews with news reporters and media representatives to voice injustices. That way their concerns are made available to the public rather than just the officials who control their hellish treatment. Power is not true power if it is given by those who govern you because they control the amount of power that you hold.