Overcrowded conditions at Higüey Prison before Tuesday’s fire (source: Panorama)

On Tuesday night, another fire broke out at an overcrowded prison in the Dominican Republic. A blaze tore through the preventive detention section of Higüey Prison in the latest tragic episode in the Dominican Republic’s preventive detention crisis.

The fire at Higüey comes only weeks after a similar tragedy at La Victoria claimed at least 13 lives and calls more attention to the deplorable conditions in the Dominican Republic’s prison system. Jesús Castro Marte, the Bishop of Higüey, wrote, “The attempted fire and riot of inmates at the Higüey preventive prison, in the center of the city, similar to the fire at the La Victoria prison, highlights the vulnerabilities of our country’s prison system. It is time to resume law and order!”

Unfortunately, Higüey Prison is no stranger to tragedy. In 2005, it was the site of one of the deadliest prison fires in the region. Some 134 inmates perished in a tragic humanitarian disaster, which, according to the Associated Press, “underscored the terrible prison conditions in the Dominican Republic, which has the most overcrowded jails in the Western Hemisphere.” The AP further reported that “human rights groups estimate 80 percent of the Higüey jail population…had not been tried or formally charged.”

Nearly 20 years later, nothing has changed. The cramped and decrepit conditions in the Dominican Republic’s prison system are a direct result of the country’s enthusiastic embrace of preventive detention, where the accused are held for months, if not years, without any formal charges. The Dominican National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH-DR) has decried the “corruption, torture, overcrowding, preventive measures turned into anticipated sentences” that are rampant in a prison system that is “a cemetery for the living” while President Abinader’s government has “no political interest” in reforms. Civil society groups have echoed these concerns: the president of the Equity and Social Justice Foundation (FEJUS) Fidel Lorenzo Meran, numerous jurists and university professors, and top officials at the Institutional and Justice Foundation (FINJUS), all raised serious alarm about the Dominican Republic’s preventive detention rate and systemic violations of due process.

“Dominican-style Justice” Puts DR Among the World’s Worst Offenders

According to the latest report from CNDH-DR, the Dominican Republic’s prison facilities, which are built for approximately 12,000 inmates, currently house 26,000 prisoners, and 80% of those are serving a preventive detention sentence. This rate puts the Dominican Republic among the highest in the world, alongside countries like the Central African Republic, Gabon, and its neighbor, Haiti.

The ongoing preventive detention crisis in the Dominican Republic has been condemned by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), which strongly stated that “preventive detention must be the exception and not the norm.” According to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, “unconvicted prisoners are presumed to be innocent and shall be treated as such.”

Yet the presumption of innocence and other basic tenets of due process do not exist in the Dominican Republic. In fact, Deputy Attorney General Wilson Camacho claims preventive detention is “the result of serious judicial processes.” Camacho recently traveled to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), where he boasted about “Dominican-style justice.” “With pride,” Camacho invited UNCAC attendees to look towards the Dominican Republic as “a country that, in addition to being valued for its beaches, merengue or bachata” is also known for its “strategic model of persecution.”

Thanks to Camacho, prosecutor Yeni Berenice, and others like them in the Public Ministry, we can now add prison fires to the list of items the Dominican Republic is known for in the international community.

How will the U.S. government respond? Will the Biden administration finally hold the Dominican government accountable for its litany of human rights abuses? Will the country’s preventive detention crisis be on the agenda as the government of Luis Abinader prepares to host the Summit of the Americas in 2025? Or will the Biden administration continue to remain silent and turn a blind eye to one of the worst crises in the Western Hemisphere?