Inmates Claim Conditions in Prisons are Deplorable After Hurricane Fiona, No Water and Energy

The Secretary of Corrections acknowledged some of the problems.

September 24, 2022

The stench from excrement and urine piled up in the cells, in some cases for up to five days, just 15 minutes outside the cell to choose between taking a shower or making a phone call, and only two bottles of water per day. This has been the routine of the past few days, mainly in the Ponce and Guayama correctional complexes given the lack of water and electricity in most of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona, hundreds of relatives of inmates claim.

The Ponce correctional complex has around 2,500 inmates and about 800 employees in six correctional institutions. 

Although the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) institutions have water tanks, in some cases they are either empty or the pumps don’t work because of a lack of pressure, so the inmates must spend almost 24 hours in their cells with the smell of excrement because they cannot flush the toilet, Dallie Cruz Ruiz, president of the inmates’ advocacy organization Defensoría de los Derechos de los Confinados (Inmate Rights Advocacy), told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish).

“They’re leaving the inmates inside the cells with the excrement there, with that smell. They eat there with that pestilence because they don’t want to let them out of the cells. Since the hurricane hit, they [the administration] said there was going to be a lockdown. That is closing the entire population in. Nobody comes out. They are only provided with basic services, which are food and medical services for those who require it,” Cruz Ruiz said in an interview with the CPI.

According to the organization’s spokesperson, the relatives of the inmates are aware that all of Puerto Rico is going through a difficult time, most of them without water or electricity services. However, she pointed out that people outside can buy food and bottled water. The inmates cannot. “We aren’t senseless, but damn, they weren’t prepared!” she insisted.

Due to the lack of electric power, their food portions have been substantially reduced, according to Cruz Ruiz. In addition, the lack of access to medical services has worsened, she said. She argued that most of the complaints that the advocacy organization has received come from the two complexes in the southern region, but they have heard the same from other prisons.   

“Before the storm hit there were deficiencies, but with the storm, they worsened. Although the administration says that everything is fine, we have received so many complaints… more than 100, saying the same thing, that really causes outrage. Can you imagine receiving over 25 complaints about the same thing in less than an hour?” said Cruz Ruiz, who on Thursday sent a letter to Governor Pedro Pierluisi, and to DCR secretary Ana Escobar Pabón.

The letter, to which the CPI had access, says: “These claims, you see, are rights. Yes, rights that are being violated. Whenever there is a social crisis, the most affected is the correctional population. Because they think there’s no life there. This is not a whim, this is an emergency that needs to be called out, addressed, and services [must] be provided accordingly.”

The Secretary, who received a copy of the letter sent to the Governor on Wednesday, responded to the advocacy organization claiming that her agency is offering the services that inmates require even in times of emergency as she was able to confirm during visits she made to the institutions.

“Family visits continue suspended until general conditions in Puerto Rico are normalized. We’ve always been emphatic in providing dignified treatment to the entire correctional population. Every day we make sure that they get the services they require and need even in times of emergency as we’ve experienced in this hurricane,” says Escobar Pabó’s letter, dated Thursday, September 22. That same day, the Secretary stated that she visited the Guayama Correctional Complex, and that the National Guard delivered 2,000 gallons of water in tanker trucks there. 

In response to this letter, the organization sent Escobar Pabón a copy of some of the complaints they have received detailing that the inmates have not been allowed to bathe and claiming that it was an order from the Secretary’s office not to allow them to leave the cells, among other complaints.

The number of the correctional population in Puerto Rico is 7,225, according to the agency.

Corrections admits some of the problems

The Secretary admitted to the CPI that rationing water had to be implemented in the Ponce and Guayama correctional complexes in order to extend the useful life of the water tanks since they had decreased in supply. She said that these measures were ordered in those institutions because that was the area most affected when the hurricane struck.

“In the case of the Ponce Correctional Complex, the water tanks store 4.65 million gallons of water. We have six correctional institutions there with about 2,500 inmates and about 800 employees. Some water tanks are underground, and others are elevated. As part of the plan for everyone to have water, we had to go into rationing,” Escobar Pabón said.

In the case of the Guayama Correctional Complex, the DCR has a 500,000-gallon tank for three institutions. She insisted that in both complexes, Ponce and Guayama, both in the South, the process of normalizing the drinking water supply has been a little slower since it does not flow with the pressure needed for the water tanks to work.

“Since the tanks are so high-capacity, they can’t be used until they’re full because the system itself, as designed, doesn’t allow it,” said the official. She added that while the water tanks are being filled, she instructed that only the tanker trucks be used to supply water for the inmates’ cells.

“We’re giving them each two to three bottles of water daily,” Escobar Pabón said. She denied that food has been rationed. She claimed that three hot meals have been served each day. Only at Campamento Zarzal in Rio Grande, in the northeastern region, was it needed to serve cold food because the kitchen boiler broke down while it was being repaired. 

In addition to the water tanks, Escobar Pabón said that all 60 correctional institutions have power generators.

In response to the complaints of the relatives of the inmates, Escobar Pabón claimed that gallons or buckets of water were provided to the inmates so that they could flush the toilets in their cells. She assured that during her visit last Thursday, when the health problems were reported, she didn´t perceive any stench of excrement or urine.

She said she was unaware that the inmates were allowed to be out of their cells for only 15 to 30 minutes a day. She claimed she instructed that they be allowed to leave their cells to eat, for an hour of recreation, and a second hour to shower.

“No one has told me with certainty, the superintendents, or guard commanders, that they were only allowed out for 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes is not enough to bathe,” she said after pointing out that they did stay in their cells the whole time during the hurricane.

Through Friday, the official said she had visited correctional institutions in Arecibo, Guayama, Ponce, Aguadilla, and Campamento El Zarzal in Río Grande. Escobar Pabón said she hopes to relax the emergency plans in the correctional institutions as they are energized in the coming days, as is the case of Guayama 500 and Guayama 296. Likewise, as of Monday, family visits could resume in institutions that have drinking water supply and electricity service.


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