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Prison Conditions in Venezuela

Human Rights Watch has been investigating prison conditions throughout the world for the last 10 years. Punishment Before Trial: Prison Conditions in Venezuela, issued in March 1997, is the 29th resulting report to appear.

HRW/Americas investigators spent three weeks in Venezuela in March 1996 during which they visited 11 of the country's 32 prisons. One of the visited prisons was the country's only separate women's facility. Investigators viewed each facility completely and spoke freely with prisoners. In addition, they spoke with government officials, prison administrators and staff, judges, representatives of non-governmental organizations and academics. Over and above that contained in Venezuelan law itself, the criteria used to evaluate prisons were the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (1955) and international treaties to which Venezuela is signatory.

Three fourths of those in Venezuela's prisons have not yet been sentenced. Many have not even been tried though they may have been there five years or longer. Since most defendants, like other prisoners, are poor they lack court representation; they have been imprisoned and forgotten. The courts are overloaded: 49 criminal courts ruled in approximately 16,500 cases during 1996 but received 18,000 new cases - and many cases require multiple rulings. This has resulted in severe overcrowding: nearly 25,000 prisoners are jammed into space designed for 15,000; and understaffing: one guard is usually responsible for over 100 prisoners. Guards receive no training and are underpaid. This creates a lucrative "prison industry" of bribery and smuggling. Overcrowding is such that, not only are there not enough cells, there are not enough beds; prisoners sleep anywhere they find space. Nor are there sufficient mattresses, bedding, clothing or food. Guards supply these items - for a price. They also supply arms and drugs.

Violence is widespread and constant. In Venezuela, however, it is largely prisoner against prisoner - or gang against gang - rather than guard against prisoner. In 1996, an average of four prisoners were killed each week and 20 were hurt.

Prisons are maintained by the Ministry of Justice and the National Guard: the Guard watches outside the walls and the Ministry within. When, in conditions of revolt or gang warfare this proves impossible, Guard troops enter and prisoner abuse abounds. The 1994 Sabaneta prison riot in Maracaibo ended in the Guard's massacre of over 100 prisoners. Thereafter troops were ordered into seven prisons on a permanent basis.

Medical service, like food and clothing, is sorely lacking; HRW/A found prisoners suffering old festering wounds from both Guard and prisoner attacks. Lack of medical care also means the rapid spread of contagious disease, especially sexually transmitted or respiratory illness.

There is little work and no training is provided by the prison; the prisoner must find his/her own. Sometimes they make items which can be sold by family or friends. The idleness caused by lack of work leads to tension, particularly under the overcrowded conditions. To alleviate this there is a policy of semi-weekly family visits during which, for the most part, family members are free to move about the prison. It is at this time that the prisoner must get the supplies s/he needs. Those unfortunate enough to have no visitors must do without. The visiting policy also includes conjugal visits. Overcrowding means lack of privacy but prisoners rig makeshift shelters or bribe guards to obtain relatively deserted locations. As occupation by the National Guard indicates, the policies are not always sufficient to keep the level of unrest manageable.

Women make up less than five percent of prisoners. Their living conditions are superior to those of their male counterparts in every respect save one: they are, for the most part, denied conjugal visits. Children may stay with their mothers until they are three years old; HRW/A investigators reported older children still present but were told this was because no one on the outside could take them. The women's prison outside Caracas has an adjoining facility which houses children from four to ten.

The report is available for $12 from HRW/A at 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10017-6104 or at 1522 K Street, N.W., #910, Washington, D.C. 20005-1202.

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