Shocking new images have been released of the El Salvador prisons where gang members are held for years in cramped, diseased pits.
Although the cells are only designed for a maximum stay of 72-hours, many members of the rival MS-13 and M18 gangs have been held for over a year in sweltering cells that, despite being just 12 feet wide and 15 feet tall, are usually packed with more of 30 people.
The gangs are obviously kept strictly segregated, but the inhumane conditions and harsh treatment that every prisoner faces gives them an odd sort of unity.
Click here for a large gallery of photographs from inside the prison
The images of El Salvador’s prisons emerged after photojournalist Giles Clarke visited the country to talk with locals about an uneasy truce that had broken out among the gangs following a vicious two-decade long war that, at its peak, claimed around 15 lives a day. Giles' work was later published by the pioneering counter–culture magazine VICE
After discussing the huge impact the truce had had on El Salvador’s homicide rate, a disgruntled police captain offered to take Giles to see how dangerously overcrowded the country’s prison system remains.
The police captain and four armed guards subsequently led the reporter to the back of a police station where dozens of prisoners were being detained in so-called “gang cages” – rancid holding pits that, until now, had been totally off-limits to the press.
Although the police captain never expressly stated it, Giles felt he had granted access in the hope the report and photographs would draw worldwide attention to the terrible conditions, and help speed-up their improvement.
Throughout the interview he reportedly made reference to the fact inmates often went without meals because the prison budget didn’t stretch to keeping such a large group of people fed for such a long time.
He also described how sickness was rife among inmates as, without a doctor to treat outbreaks, diseases could regularly sweep the unsanitary cells.
The police captain, who Giles and VICE chose to keep anonymous for fear of retribution over his frankness, went on to reveal how the gangs had one cell each, with the third cell reserved for so-called “common criminals”.
Although they were only designed for a maximum 72-hour stay, many of the prisoners have been held in the police prison cells for over a year, thanks to a severe overcrowding problem within El Salvador’s long-term prison system.
Giles discovered that many of the prisoners while away their days tearing shreds from their clothing and using the material to make hammocks using crude, homemade needles.
After 40 minutes of talking to the prisoners and photographing the cages, Giles was asked to leave as news of his visit had apparently reached the head of the police service’s press department, who was now making his way to the prison to “talk” to him.
An argument reportedly broke out among the guards and prisoners, who were apparently upset that the unprecedented opportunity to speak to a journalist about their plight had been cut short.
Spooked by the imminent arrival of police captain’s superiors, Giles declined the opportunity to return to the prison the following day to speak with the gang members for a second time.