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Rampant Violence in Venezuelan Prisons

by María Dubayle, Venezuelan journalist

The situation inside Venezuela's prisons reflects the serious deficiencies in the country's protection of human rights.

According to figures from the Public Ministry's Human Rights Office, so far this year more than 160 prisoners have been killed inside Venezuelan jails.

Fighting between rival gangs to control drug trafficking, failure to separate criminals based on the severity of crime, corruption among prison authorities, serious overcrowding and lack of basic services, failure to grant promised benefits and an extremely slow legal process are the main causes of the prison crisis.

For a majority of inmates, their prison stay is a constant struggle for survival. It is a daily fight for a patch of ground to sleep on, for a piece of bread to eat, even for use of the bathrooms. Inmates also compete to have their cases brought to a court - for which they pay huge bribes to the prison guards - to receive written proof of their detentions.

The most serious charge, however, is that inmates also pay off guards to control the flow of drugs within the jails. In addition to being a leading cause of the violence among prisoners, drug trafficking within the prisons has also corrupted penal authorities, who, with increasing frequency, are being implicated in the trafficking.

In many judicial investigations of the prisons, investigators have said that prison authorities are responsible for selling weapons and drugs to inmates. Judges and prosecutors conducted surprise inspections of six penitentiaries around the country in 1991. Large quantities of drugs and weapons were discovered in the administrative areas of each prison.

The Public Ministry requested that the authorities who participated in the inspections prepare reports of their findings. More than half-way through 1992, however, none of the reports has been finished.

For human rights activists, what is more serious is that there has been no indications that any improvement is likely.

According to the human rights director of the attorney general's office, the Rev. Luis María Olaso, the prison situation is a moral problem and an issue of justice. "Those who have the power to make decisions have limited what the attorney general's office can do. The justice system has paid little attention to our recommendations."

[Editor's note: as this came to press we received word that in the wake of an unsuccessful coup attempt and civil disturbances, the prisoners in the central prison of Caracas rioted. At least 42 were killed when the armed forces stormed the prison. It was the second prison uprising in 10 months.]

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