Global Opinions

‘Stripped of basic human dignity’: Inside El Salvador’s prisons

El Salvador has a notorious reputation for its brutal gang-related crime. But inside the country’s prisons, inhumane conditions and overcrowding represent some of the biggest threats, not violence. I traveled to the Central American country in December as part of an observation mission with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

Thiago Dezan

Zacatecoluca prison

At the Zacatecoluca prison, inmates said they hadn’t had any visitors in years. (Family visits are prohibited by law at maximum-security prisons.) Some said they hadn’t seen the sun in months as they huddled in the dark, humid cells. Several prisons in El Salvador are overflowing with over 600 percent capacity.

Inmate at the Zacatecoluca prison.

Inside the Izalco I prison, we saw 94 men in a cell built to hold 28 inmates. Many of the inmates wore masks to protect against the spread of tuberculosis. According to the government, 60 percent of cases in the country are confined within its prisons’ walls.

Inmates at Izalco I prison.

Members of 18 Surenos gang at Izalco prison.

At a detention center, roughly 100 young men waited to be charged and tried in a cell for less than 20 people, all sharing one toilet.

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Thiago Dezan/The Washington Post

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What we saw were conditions that stripped inmates of their basic human dignity. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights urged the government to increase its budget.

Thiago Dezan/The Washington Post

Inmates at la Bartolina, centro de detención policial.

Without proper infrastructure, hygiene, visitors and activities, there will be no rehabilitation for these men.

La Bartolina, police station detention center.


Thiago Dezan is a Brazilian filmmaker and photographer.