As long ago as 1997, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch issued a report that characterized conditions in Venezuelan prisons as “violat[ing] both Venezuelan law and international human rights standards.” The group pointed to dangerous overcrowding as perhaps the greatest fundamental problem in that country’s prisons.
Recent reports, however, indicate that conditions have worsened – with corruption, crime, drugs and violence being everyday occurrences. Armed battles between prisoners and authorities are common, and prisoners who are not among the strongest, wealthiest or most powerful are ruled by those who are, effectively putting the imprisoned in charge of the prisons according to Carlos Nieto Palma, director of the prison monitoring group A Window for Liberty.
“Being sent to a Venezuelan jail is like being buried in a cemetery for the barely alive. It’s a living hell,” a former prisoner identified only as “El Varón” said in an interview with The Guardian. “You know when you go in, but you never know when or how you’ll come out.”
In recent years, the economic stagnation that has rocked Central and South America, coupled with the decline in world oil prices, has hit Venezuela especially hard – straining resources and causing food shortages that prompted the socialist regime of President Nicolás Maduro to impose a rationing system in supermarkets. The hardship has wrecked havoc along the Venezuelan-Colombian border, as Venezuelans trade oil for basic supplies that are easily purchased in their neighboring country.
The result for those languishing in Venezuelan prisons is even worse – a strict ration of one small cup of rice and water per day – and a ban in 80% of the nation’s prisons on family members bringing food to their loved ones behind bars, in spite of a government admission that the economic crisis has made it difficult for the prison system to provide sufficient food.
According to Palma, prisoners’ family members in at least four facilities complained to A Window for Liberty about both the lack of food and various forms of physical abuse, including beatings with bats, chains and heavy wet cloths. One video smuggled out of the Centro Penitenciario Metropolitano Yare 3 facility showed prisoners skinning and cooking a cat on a makeshift stove of aluminum pans in order to survive.
The group condemned the Venezuelan government for human rights abuses against prisoners in a statement that accompanied the posting of the video on social media in August 2015.
Compounding the crisis is the fact that nearly three-fourths of prisoners in Venezuelan prisons have not been convicted of any crime but are being held in detention pending trial, or are political prisoners in a country where publicly speaking out against the socialist government is itself grounds for arrest.
One famous example was the February 2014 arrest of the nation’s leading political opposition leader, Leopoldo López, chairman of the Popular Will party. President Maduro personally accused him of inciting violence at a peaceful protest, even though eyewitnesses claimed that government forces were behind the agitation, which resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.
López was jailed on “murder and terrorism” charges; the Public Ministry of Venezuela later told reporters that prosecutors had “presented our conclusions in court ... demonstrating his guilt regarding the crimes of public instigation, assembly with intent of delinquency and accomplice in damages and arson.” López was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison in September 2015; U.S. officials have called for his release.
A Window for Liberty, Human Rights Watch and a host of other humanitarian and advocacy groups have advocated for across-the-board reform in Venezuela, and in one rare instance, the warden and two guards at the largest prison in northwestern Venezuela were arrested on charges of extortion for allegedly demanding bribes from prisoners.
On December 15, 2015, a Venezuelan court formalized the arrests of warden Fabio Castro and guards Christhian Ruza and Abelardo Valera, and ordered them jailed for illegal activity such as extorting prisoners “in exchange for not transferring them to other incarceration sites.”
“The relative of an inmate complained to prosecutors about the warden and his two subordinates and, after investigative work coordinated by prosecutors in the case, the responsibility of the three men was determined,” according to a statement issued by the Attorney General’s Office in the state of Yaracuy.
Civil and human rights groups have conceded, however, that reforming Venezuelan prisons is a gargantuan task, especially considering the degree of control exercised by prisoners and the lack of control by government authorities. In one infamous demonstration of the challenge facing the government, a two-day battle in January 2013 between prisoners and National Guard troops at one of Venezuela’s largest prisons, the Uribana facility in the central city of Barquisimeto, left 58 people dead and more than 100 injured – mostly prisoners.
According to Venezuelan Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela, prisoners attacked soldiers who were sent by the government to search the prison following reports of groups of prisoners clashing during the previous two days. Varela himself was denied access to the facility by the prisoners.
“When you have a minister of penitentiary affairs who has been repeatedly denied access inside Uribana it is clear that prisons are controlled by inmates, and not the state,” commented Palma.
The incident sparked a government investigation, but reaction was swift from political opponents of Maduro’s administration.
“Our country’s prisons are an example of the incapacity of this government and its leaders,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles. “They never solved the problem. How many deaths do there have to be in the prisons for the government to acknowledge its failure and make changes?”
PLN has reported a number of other incidents in Venezuelan prisons, including deaths, riots and lavish living conditions for wealthy prisoners. [See, e.g.: PLN, May 2014, p.56].
Sources: Associated Press, www.latimes.com, www.nytimes.com, www.theguardian.com, www.hrw.org, www.breitbart.com, http://latino.foxnews.com, CNN
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