Penas Ciudad Barrios: A Prison So Dangerous Even The Guards Stay Outside

Not much is known about Penas Ciudad Barrios. The South American jail is deemed so incredibly dangerous that even the guards only patrol the perimeter, because the interior of the jail is far too dangerous. Penas Ciudad Barrios houses inmates from the most dangerous gang on the planet, the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, an El Salvadoran gang so deadly that there is little choice but to allow the inmates to police themselves within the confines of the jail.

There are some 2,500 prisoners within the walls of Penas Ciudad Barrios, and these are some of the most violent drug pushers, arms dealers, and murderers El Salvador has seen. In 2013, photographer Adam Hinton was granted unbelievable and unprecedented access to the prisoners in Penas Ciudad Barrios to photograph them.

Hinton said during an interview, “The men stand around aimless with nothing to do except kill what seem like an infinity of minutes, hours and days. The vast majority of the inmates are from the Barrios or slums. In El Salvador this is a place without hope or opportunity and the gang is the only real option. If the authorities catch you this is the place they literally dump you and forget about you – every inmate is made to feel just like that.”

El Salvador is deemed by the United Nations to be one of the most violent countries on Earth, and this is largely due to the gang violence that occurs daily. From January to August of this year, there were 4,246 homicides, or 17.5 homicides daily. In spite of this rampant violence, though, the inmates at Penas Ciudad Barrios have established their own society, complete with rehab center, bakery and hospital facility. The guards remain on the perimeter, too fearful to enter Penas Ciudad Barrios due to the dangerous nature of the inmates and ready to stop any potential escapees.

Interestingly, Penas Ciudad Barrios was initially built to house 800 inmates but has exploded to house 2,500 inmates, all of whom have become part of the mini-society within its walls. Inmates are all heavily tattooed to mark the crimes they have been part of or to honour those they have lost while they are behind bars.

Hinton was also given access to Las Victorias, the area where the prisoners’ families live. “I’d always avoided gangs,” he said of his decision to take shots in Penas Ciudad Barrios, according to the Guardian. “Rather than seeing these places as threats and full of bad people, my idea is to say: here’s a family; they want the same things as we do; they want a job, a decent home, a better life for their kids. There are basic human needs that everyone has the right to. A lot of my sympathies are with these gang members. They’re there; they’re trapped; there’s nothing else they can do.”

He noted that the breakdown of the truce between Barrio 18 and MS-13 has led to increased violence in El Salvador, but that he did not feel unsafe in going to Penas Ciudad Barrios. A gang member had invited Hinton in to take the pictures, giving the world at large a real world view of one of the most violent prisons in the western world.

[Photo courtesy of Adam Hinton]