134 killed in Dominican Republic jail fire
A prison fire that killed 134 inmates, one of the deadliest in Latin American prisons, has cast a harsh spotlight on conditions in this country's cells. The Dominican Republic has the most overcrowded jails in the Western Hemisphere, according to UN figures, and the fire Monday in the eastern city of Higuey happened at one of its worst.
The cellblock where the blaze broke out — known as the Vietnam block — was said to be so packed, inmates were sleeping on top of toilets. To make matters worse, the inmates had guns and knives and easy access to drugs.
"It is hell on earth," said Domingo Porfirio Rojas-Nina of the Dominican National Human Rights Commission said of the Higuey prison. "It is unfit for human beings."
Officials gave varying numbers for the overall population of the prison, a confusion illustrating some of the problems with the system. But there appeared to be at least 178 inmates in the block, which had a maximum capacity of 25.
The government ordered an investigation of the fire, which began during a fight among inmates over who would control their drug trade. Guards said when they went to open the door, they found it blocked. Bodies were later found "piled up on top of each other" at the door, where the inmates died trying to escape, chief firefighter Nestor Vera said.