Prisoners manage to survive in inhumane conditions in Venezuelan prisons

Photo: La Patilla


The floor is wet, the water spreads all over, while the sound of brooms scratch the asphalt. More than six men have the task of cleaning the entrance to the compound. A few meters away, a group is sitting, their hair shaved off, masks on. They keep silent. They wait for the official who will pass the list and tell them which vehicle to board. Their destination: the Palace of Justice in Puerto Ordaz.

By La Patilla – Pableysa Ostos

Nov 30, 2022

They are transported in private cars belonging to officials, a very common practice in “preventive detention centers” (prisons) in the country.

Another scenario is observed when you arrive at the prison compound. At the end of the corridor, several men are sitting on the floor, in a dark space that is barely broken by a few rays of sunlight. Upon entering a “God bless you” is heard in chorus and almost in unison.

A few meters from that room, there is another group. The gaze gets lost upon entering the place. Prisoners are sitting on the floor, in a row. All eyes focused on a small television. They are watching the match between Japan and Germany in the Qatar 2022 Soccer World Cup.

Everyone is concentrating on their activities. It seems there is no time for leisure. Some 755 inmates live in these spaces.

The Guaiparo Police Coordination Center (CCP Guaiparo), in San Félix, belongs to the Bolívar State Police, in southern Venezuela.

“You saw that there is no bad smell!” says one of the inmates, who automatically responds: “Everything is clean and tidy here.” And it is true.

This detention center is spacious and can hold about 1,500 prisoners. There is no bustle, nor dirt on the floors and walls. At first glance, it seems that the cells that belonged to the Bolívar State Police (PEB) were under its management, but this is not the case.

Each construction, maintenance or improvement of the infrastructure depends on self-management by the prisoners, with the help of their families and public or private entities.

The Will To Contribute

“These sites are supposed to be reintegration centers, in which prisoners can do something that adds to society. And in this center we are concerned with achieving that. We have a car body repair shop and paint shop; one for carpentry, in which we have made desks that we have donated to some public schools in the state,” explained one of the detainees.

Now they have launched a new project: the manufacture of coffins that can be marketed at affordable costs, and with that money support the maintenance of the compound in which many are paying their sentences.

“We would like this center to become an example for the rest of the (detention) centers in the country. None of what we have achieved would be possible without the help of organizations such as “Motor de Guayana”, “Fundación Lala” among other public and private institutions that, in one way or another, have added their grain of sand,” they added.

One of the spokesmen for the Guaiparo Police Coordination Center pointed out that the intention is to “turn it into a rehabilitation center.”

They already have a barbershop there, as well as small informal sales of juice and sweets, and soon they hope to have an infirmary.

One of the inmates, who is 46 years old, explained that “during the time that a “compañero” (mate, fellow) remains in prison, we look for him to participate in any project, to benefit from social, spiritual and health care, as well as search for legal solutions for everyone.”

A Harsh Reality

In its 34th newsletter, the NGO “Una Ventana a la Libertad” (UVL, A Window to Liberty) warns: “In a country where the justice system has a budget of 0.58% of the annual national budget allocation, according to data reflected by Transparency Venezuela, this is an amount that does not allow improvisation to be avoided, much less to move towards an expedite justice system.”

“The lack of investment and planning prevent having adequate procedures in preventive detention and developing public policies for crime prevention and reinsertion of those deprived of liberty,” the NGO states in its bulletin.

In the Venezuelan case, it is convenient for the State to keep a detainee in a police station, instead of serving his sentence in jail, because it does not have to disburse resources to “pay for his stay” in a penitentiary.

The Ministry of Popular Power for Penitentiary Services does not include in its budget the thousands of detainees that remain in the country’s police stations, which violates article 272 of the National Constitution, explains UVL.

The 2021 Annual Report of “Una Ventana a la Libertad” (UVL) recorded how in a sample of 335 detention centers studied, the State does not guarantee the human rights of the 16,778 people who are imprisoned in these facilities.

“When delving into which are the most frequent crimes as a cause of admission in the population, we appreciate that there is an information gap. There is only data available for 8.02% of the total number of detainees in the Preventive Detention Centers (CDP), out of 1,345 identified cases. This is evidence of the lack of information that exists within the system and file level, in addition to the fear of internal sources for presenting the day-to-day conditions in the CDPs,” the UVL detailed in its recent bulletin.

Alarming Figures

Venezuela has a total of 16,778 detainees and 156.54% overcrowding, according to data from the latest UVL report for the year 2022.

In a UVL research report, a police source revealed that “it is free for the State to have a prisoner in a police station instead of having him in a jail”, because the Ministry of Popular Power for Penitentiary Services in its budget does not take into account the more than 6,000 prisoners in the country’s police stations, since they consider that their competence is limited to the penitentiary sphere.

“One knows the reality in each cell and we went from fulfilling the usual police functions to becoming custodians,” he added.

Held in Police Stations

Article 272 of the Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela establishes the following: “The State will guarantee a prison system that ensures the rehabilitation of the inmates and respect for their human rights. To this end, prisons will have spaces for work, study, sports and recreation, they will function under the direction of professional penitentiary exports with universitary academic credentials and will be governed through a decentralized administration, and be in charge of the state or municipal governments, which may be subject to privatization modalities.”

Although the Ministry of People’s Power for Penitentiary Services claims to comply with this constitutional premise, there are several complaints from family members and even from “deprived of liberty” (euphemism for prisoner) that deny this.

The families of those “deprived of liberty” are not exempt from the current crisis in Venezuela, where the minimum wage is less than 15 U.S. dollars a month. Every day they have to go to the police station to deliver the three meals to their relatives and, in extreme cases, only a single portion of food.

Although a declarant highlighted that food delivery days are managed through various foundations, everything is a constant struggle. “Here they have the convenience that they can cook in here, that is, with a kilo of rice several may eat, and so on.”

The truth is that until a public policy is implemented for the short, medium and long term, which focuses on the rehabilitation and social reintegration of those who are behind bars today, many prisoners and their families will continue to suffer the subhuman conditions that prevail today in Venezuelan prisons.

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