Two aging cannons linger menacingly over the entrance. Inside, three darkened underground cells hold up to 120 prisoners, including women and children, who lie cramped, locked up for nearly 20 hours per day in barely enough space for a third of their number.
A 12-year-old boy, an alleged petty thief, has figured among the crowd of inmates, but the guards, who didn’t have the heart to throw him in with seasoned offenders, detained him in an office. He is one of the lucky ones: The average prisoner is allowed outside for a reported 30 minutes of sunlight per week.
Not the description of a Victorian-era jail, but the holding cells of a Bluefields, Nicaragua, police station suffering under the strain of a failed criminal justice system and which has attracted widespread criticism for alleged human rights abuses.
Now the British Embassy in San José, which doubles as the United Kingdom’s mission to Nicaragua and is a long-time champion for change in the country’s prison policy, is launching a fund-raising drive to amass cash to build two new cells specifically designed to detain youngsters.
The campaign – called Caribbean Coast Prison Appeal: Nicaragua – would see the facilities built inside the Bluefields prison compound, lifting children with an average age of around 16 out of the slum police holding cells they currently share with dozens of adults.
The embassy has been lobbying the Nicaraguan government about overcrowding and health problems in what are meant to be police holding cells and designed to hold just 40 people.
But due to the country’s strained prison system, the cavernous rooms – described as dungeon-like by one embassy official – regularly hold up to 120, many of whom are convicts serving full-length jail terms.
The scale of the squalor-like conditions led British Member of Parliament Greg Pope – after a visit to the Bluefields area late last year – to call on his government to intervene during a U.K. House of Commons debate.
He described how he had visited one particular cell which had a capacity of around 10 but which contained more than three times that number.
“At the time I visited, there were in excess of 30 men in it,” he said. “They told me that recently there had been as many as 50 men in the cell. There was little or no sanitation and the heat was extreme. The day I was there the temperature was well in excess of 40°. The prisoners told me that they had only one hour of exercise away from the cell – not each day but each week.
“The conditions were intolerable. I do not blame the police guards. To be honest, they were doing their best in intolerable circumstances. They were quite open about showing us around, because they wanted the situation to be raised.”
In late 2006, British Ambassador to Costa Rica and Nicaragua Tom Kennedy led a group of delegates from a U.K. government-financed prison reform seminar in Managua on a tour of the cells.
Embassy political officer Bruce Callow, who is coordinating the appeal for cash, said current plans will soon see the focus of efforts shift to Nicaragua. “We are going to do a fund-raiser up there this summer… We are looking for donations of any amount to make this project happen.”
Callow, just back from a trip to his native Canada, where he kicked off the fund-raising effort, pointed out one redeeming feature of the cells that sets them apart from other notorious prisons in the region.
“There has not been the kind of violence (in Bluefields) that is common in other Central American countries and it would be good to keep it that way if possible,” he said.
How You Can Help
To donate to the cause, contact Bruce Callow at the embassy in San José on (506) 2258-2025 or by e-mail at [email protected] The project’s Web site can be visited at http://www.freewebs.com/caribbean-coast-prison-appeal/index.html.