Thursday, February 16, 2012

Texas Officials Praise Honduras Prison System Efficiencies

Courtesy Getty Images
COMAYAGUA, Honduras (Bennington Vale Evening Transcript) -- In one of the world's worst prison fires, flames raged through an overcrowded complex in Honduras, leaving 359 people dead. Officials suspected a convict of starting the blaze by igniting his mattress. A phone call placed to the governor by another inmate, who claimed to have witnessed the incident, seemed to confirm this. Unable to escape the inferno that gutted the Comayagua National Penitentiary on Tuesday night, terrified prisoners died screaming to be let out of their cells. One man, serving a 10-year sentence for murder, managed to escape. He told reporters that fire brigades did not arrive for more than a half an hour. Relatives of the victims denounced the government for maintaining inhumane living conditions through massive overcrowding, negligent guards and a "failed" justice system. But despite the notoriety and criticism the prison has drawn, officials from the Texas penal system praised the reaction of the facility's staff and noted several efficiencies they may adopt stateside.

Milt Zehkopf, a correctional systems policy analyst and consultant based in Nacogdoches, called the Honduran prison's detractors "a bunch of idyllic hippie nutjobs -- the same lunatics who drive BMWs 'cause they love German engineering but refuse to acknowledge Hitler's role in all that."

In response to attacks by human rights groups that guards left inmates to perish, Zehkopf said he would have done the same.

"Those guys deserve medals," Zehkopf loudly declared. "Know why? They did their damn jobs, right up to the end. See, a government spends good money -- tax money -- and a crapload of time training prison guards to keep baddies behind bars. And these Mexicans [sic] saw that through. It ain't easy, neither, having to watch a body burn to death, all slow and nasty. The screaming goes on forever, the smell is godawful and deep down, a part of you thinks, 'I should end that fella's suffering.' I saw some of that myself in Nam and in a religious outfit I used to belong to. But these guards stayed strong. And if they'd a' let the prisoners go, they'd be catching flak for turning criminals loose on the streets. Classic liberal Catch-22."

Zehkopf also lauded the penitentiary for its focus on cost savings, saying that use of the term "overcrowding" by the media was unfair: "This is jail, not a love-in or a gay night club -- although it ends up looking like one after a spell. People bitch and moan about crime in their neighborhoods and high taxes. Well, the more wings you build onto a prison complex to feed and coddle these parasites, the more tax money you gotta bleed from Americans. I'd say the people of Honduras got the right idea. Just pack 'em all in there and slash the overhead."

Even in the presence of what the world community viewed as a significant and unnecessary loss of life, Zehkopf found his silver lining.

"The great state of Texas has sent 478 worthless, incorrigible desperadoes to their final judgments -- and probably Hell -- since 1978. We put another 13 to sleep last year. Shoot, 2012 ain't but a couple months old and we already dispatched another one. But Honduras? Almost 360 in one fell swoop. And really, who's crying about a bunch of dead criminals? Their families, that's who -- the people who made them that way. As Governor Perry told a debate audience, 'In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice...and that is, you will be executed.' He said that and people got on their feet and cheered. Now, they're boo-hooing this fire? That's bull."

In fact, Zehkopf found the idea of mass immolation so profoundly effective in its simplicity -- and inexpensive compared to lethal injection -- that he plans to pitch this method of capital punishment to Texas regulators.

"Sure, you don't want to destroy the architecture of the prison -- that's valuable property -- but a good ol' fashioned bonfire could solve a lot of problems on the cheap. Create a special pit or something. And it gives these dirt-bags a little taste of what's waiting for 'em in the afterlife," Zehkopf drawled.

But he also conceded flaws in the Honduran system: "Place wasn't fortified good enough. This is the third prison fire in the region since 2003. And while they've clearly mastered the art of the ultimate justice -- like in a real Biblical way that should make outlaws think twice -- they need to work on shoring up those dilapidated buildings. I heard some of the prisoners fled by pushing up the roof panels. So, this complex never would've passed muster in the U.S. of A, being that easy to break out of or burn down. Again, to me this just shows how skilled the officers were at keeping the convicts corralled. Also shows the need to bring back lead and asbestos."

Honduras is ravaged by violent street gangs, brutal drug traffickers and rampant poverty. Because of the country's humble economy, construction costs for updated prisons and larger facilities soar beyond the government's means. Zehkopf advised Hondurans to take a page from Texas' playbook: "Arm your citizens. Let 'em strut around town with assault rifles and Glocks. If we didn't have open carry laws in Texas, our streets would be full of gangs and crack heads and hobos too. Your crime will subside, and you won't have to burn down so many jails next year."

(c) 2012. See disclaimers.

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