Prisons: Historic sentencing for penitentiary officials in the deaths of 33 inmates

Twelve years after the fact, the justice system convicted three officials from the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service for the 33 deaths that occurred in a fire at the Magdalena prison. For the first time, high-ranking officials from the provincial penitentiary service received long sentences for a prison blaze and its consequences.

Today, the Oral Criminal Court No.5 of La Plata announced the sentencing in the trial over the Magdalena prison fire in which 33 detained people died in 2005. This is a historic decision: the official in charge of the repressive operation within the prison and the person in charge of opening and closing the cell doors were convicted of homicide, while the warden at the time was convicted for having maintained the terrible conditions that led to the deaths.

This is the first time that high-ranking personnel from the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service have been convicted for an incident of this type, and for the extremely grave consequences that arise from overcrowding.

The court sentenced Reimundo Héctor Fernández to 25 years in prison for the crimes of homicide and attempted homicide in relation to the 33 detainees who died and two others who were rescued. In a press release, the court determined that Fernández was “in charge of the unit and directed the operation to enter the pavilion along with other prison officials armed with shotguns and antiriot ammunition after a fight broke out among inmates, firing such weapons on Fernández’s orders when the detainees did not stop fighting, leading the inmates to set a fire and throw it at the prison officials to get them to stop shooting.” For the same crimes, Rubén Alejandro Montes de Oca, who was in charge of opening and closing the pavilion doors, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. “When they retreated, they were aware of the advanced state of the fire and the effects of toxic smoke in the pavilion, and nonetheless they left the inmates locked inside to die from asphyxia and high temperatures,” the judges concluded. In contrast to the official version that the Penitentiary Service had relayed, the judges’ description focuses attention on the fact that this was a situation of repression, not a “riot” as they had indicated.

In addition, the court sentenced Daniel Tejeda, who was the warden of the unit at the time, to 5 years in prison for his criminal negligence that led to the fire, “having kept the detainees residing in Pavilion 16 in conditions that enabled a fire of the magnitude of that of October 16, 2005 to occur, knowing that the firefighting system did not work due to a lack of pressurization (…) and doing nothing to resolve this dangerous situation, despite having the obligation to do so as head of the unit.”

In this sentencing, the judicial branch reaffirms that prison officials are criminally responsible for events resulting from their sustaining, maintaining and even aggravating the very poor conditions that reign in detention centers. The warden’s conviction underscores that penitentiary service officials are responsible for the consequences of housing people who are in state custody in detention centers that are unfit to be authorized for use.

Unfortunately, the policies that brought about the 33 deaths in Magdalena not only continue to exist – they are worseningToday, the Buenos Aires provincial incarceration system has collapsed: a policy of mass imprisonment has led to a historic increase in the population and in incarceration rates. Pavilion 16 was part of a set of four modules that were built when the provincial penitentiary service was in an emergency situation in 2004, and they were explicitly called “low-cost modules” by the administration. The current provincial government announced the revival of this same module as a measure purported to relieve overcrowding.

The court in La Plata decided to acquit the other 14 individuals who had been accused of the crime of abandonment of persons followed by death.

The trial

Late on the night of October 15, 2005, a fire broke out in Pavilion 16 of the Magdalena prison. Before that, the inmates had been violently repressed by officials from the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service. There were 58 inmates in that pavilion – only two of whom had been convicted of crimes, the rest were held under pretrial detention  – and 33 of them died that night due to the inhalation of toxic fumes, heat stress and injuries to their bodies. Among them was 25-year-old Javier Magallanes; CELS represented his mother, Rufina Verón, in the case. The Colectivo de Investigación y Acción Jurídica (CIAJ) represented the brothers of Abel Pereyra and the partner and daughter of Juan Ariel Campos.

The trial lasted almost six months and analyzed the role that 17 officials and agents from the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service played in the deaths during the fire. Twelve years after the fact, the justice system handed down its verdict over Magdalena.

Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS)

Colectivo de Investigación y Acción Jurídica (CIAJ)