Access to food, limited at the national level, is even more so in prisons. In some institutions, inmates receive only one meal per day. The OVP routinely reports allegations from family members that inmates receive spoiled food.
According to the organisation, 60% of inmates in the country do not receive any type of food and depend on what their relatives bring when they visit. The situation is similar in almost every police station holding cell1.
At the INOF, the daily ration consists of a piece of bread or a portion of white rice. Food brought by relatives is not allowed in, although in practice it is permitted as long as a fee is paid to the guards. However, penitentiary staff severely punish inmates who sneak food in: the OVP reported the case of a woman who spent eight hours in the sun as punishment for having eaten a package of cookies that had not been admitted as required.
In August 2015, the NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom) published a video showing inmates at the Yare III penitentiary cooking a cat to feed themselves.
The organisation states that it has received similar complaints from the INOF and Rodeo I, II and III correctional facilities and police station holding cells2.
In Tocorón prison, which is under the control of the pran “El niño guerrero”, food and hygiene products which are scarce outside the prison are sold because the armed band operating in the prison has contact with roadside bandits who operate in the region. Resellers must pay a commission to the pran3.
Crónicas del hambre – Pan y agua es el menú que más se repite en calabozos policiales, Runrun.es, 8 November 2016 (in Spanish)↩
Denuncian que presos comen gatos por falta de alimentos en cárceles venezolanas, El Nacional, 31 August 2015 (in Spanish)↩
‘No tengo que madrugar en un mercado porque en Tocorón hay de todo’, Entorno inteligente, 15 August 2016 (in Spanish)↩
There are serious health problems in both prisons and police stations. Access to water, whether drinkable or not, is limited. In many prisons, inmates can only obtain drinkable water from their relatives and must store emergency supplies in buckets.
The OVP highlights the case of the Central Eastern Region Penitentiary (El Dorado), where drinking water comes from pipes connected to the Cuyuní River, contaminated by mining in the area.
In addition, the OVP states that it has verified the following during visits to different prisons in Venezuela: deteriorated pipes, collapsed sewage systems circulating throughout all facility areas, the presence of rats and large flies, and a lack of waste collection.
In the INOF, there is no designated area to deposit waste, so the authorities use a basketball court as a deposit. The waste covers the entire surface of the court and, due to its progressive accumulation, contains all types of sanitary waste, decomposing food and insects. The waste collection vehicle only runs once a week and, given the amount of waste that accumulates, does not pick up everything.
Police station holding cells do not have facilities for showering or using the toilet. In some correctional facilities, prisoners are forced to carry out their needs in plastic bags or containers.
High occupancy rates contribute to the spread of skin infections such as dermatitis, scabies and lice. Cells do not have a ventilation system that adequately addresses the high temperatures registered in Venezuela throughout the year. A nauseating smell is described in all correctional facilities and police stations in the country.
The vast majority of correctional facilities lack specialised personnel (nurses and doctors), as well as equipment, supplies and medications to handle emergencies and everyday health situations.
Family members take on the responsibility of providing medication. The OVP has received complaints from relatives alleging that they or fellow inmates are responsible for treating and cleaning the wounds of prisoners who have been shot.
The most common diseases are dermatological diseases and gastrointestinal disorders associated with poor diet and lack of drinkable water.
In addition, people suffering from tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS do not receive appropriate treatment. Several videos from the General Penitentiary of Venezuela (Guárico) show inmates in a state of starvation, asking the minister of the MPPSP, Iris Varela, to please send medicine and food. In one of the videos, prisoners say eight fellow inmates in the prison have recently died due to lack of treatment12. “Since the beginning of October, relatives of prisoners at the General Penitentiary of Venezuela have reported that a total of 27 prisoners suffer from this condition, and two are in critical condition because they cannot even walk and were therefore abandoned to their fate in the most isolated corner of this prison that houses 11,700 inmates”, wrote Humberto Prado in October 20163.
The INOF does not have an ambulance or transport vehicle for immediate transportation in urgent situations. The inmates and their families have filed repeated complaints with the OVP regarding the precarious situation with regard to medical emergencies, which puts the lives of the inmates at risk. Several inmates have died during childbirth because they were not transferred to a hospital for medical attention in time.
At police stations, infectious diseases such as scabies, skin infections, conjunctivitis or influenza spread due to overcrowding and poor hygiene. Prisoners also have chronic respiratory diseases that require constant medical treatment, such as asthma, bronchitis or even pneumonia. According to Humberto Prado, “in 2015 a tuberculosis outbreak killed 11 inmates in only four months, while another 1,700 were at risk of infection at the El Marite jail in the state of Zulia”4.
Police station jails do not have the necessary budget to maintain permanent medical care on site, so sick detainees must wait to be transferred to a hospital. In less serious cases, prisoners must wait until a court authorises their transfer to a medical centre. This procedure is slow, and when the inmate finally visits a doctor, the disease has already worsened or healed.
Presos de la PGV piden auxilio a la ministra Iris Varela, Caraota Digital, 11 October 2016 (in Spanish)↩
Franklin Masacre y presos de PGV piden medicinas a Iris Varela, Caraota Digital, 5 October 2016 (in Spanish)↩
H. Prado, op. cit.↩
During 2012, the MPPAP implemented the “Llegó la chamba” (Work Has Arrived) plan, which sought to increase employment opportunities within the penitentiary system.
In some corrections facilities following the New Prison Regime, employment workshops are held, mainly for carpentry and metalworking. However, according to information provided by both inmates and their families, work in Venezuelan prisons is not remunerated, despite the fact that the Prison Regime Law states that work in prison is governed by the Organic Labour Law.
The Penitentiary Code, approved on 15 August 2013 (not yet in effect), considers work in prison an obligation, not a right. According to testimony received by the OVP, prisoners who refuse to work are victims of abuse or mistreatment by the guards.
The Venezuelan government prevents national or international human rights organisations from conducting monitoring activities inside prisons. Only certain religious orders, Catholic or evangelical, are allowed in to offer spiritual support to inmates.
Human rights defenders are victims of harassment by the Venezuelan State. Humberto Prado, the director of the OVP, has been the subject of defamation campaigns by members of the executive branch since 2010. During the latest attack, in April 2016, they hacked his Facebook account, published his home address and made threats against him. The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), Front Line Defenders, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Amnesty International and the UN expressed concern about these developments1.
The OVP, created in 2002, publishes annual reports that share the number of deaths, injuries, escapes and riots, among other information. During the preparation of these reports, the organisation carries out documentation activities such as the Censos Jurídicos (judicial censuses) project, which was carried out in the police stations of the Caracas metropolitan region in 2015. The aim was to use detainee surveys to determine the detention conditions in each police station and the reasons why certain persons were not transferred to prisons.
The NGO also works to alert public and international authorities about the country’s prison situation.
The NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad, created in 1996, is dedicated to denouncing human rights violations in Venezuelan prisons and providing humanitarian assistance to prisoners and their relatives.
The Venezuelan Penal Forum, which provides legal assistance to people arbitrarily detained during social demonstrations, has the support of around 400 national criminal lawyers and 1,500 volunteers who offer assistance to victims’ families.
Financial resources and destitution
In self-governed prisons, the inmates must pay the causa to the pran, meaning a periodic fee simply to be able to stay in the facility.
In the Tocorón prison (Aragua State) a “bank” (a makeshift structure made of wooden boards) operates to make loans to the inmates with weekly interest rates of between 10 and 20%. Relatives of inmates living far from the Tocorón prison deposit the causa into a bank account belonging to the pran’s family1. This system also exists in other prisons in the country.
The “carro” (a self-governing authority, literally “car”) charges an even higher rate to visitors who wish to spend the night in the prison. Income is also acquired through the sale of basic supplies or drugs (the “jíbaros” who operate in prison must pay a commission to the pran), the protection of certain inmates or the authorisation to sleep in an area with better living conditions, as well as criminal operations carried out outside the prison such as extortion, kidnapping and robbery.
The money collected is used to buy weapons for prison staff and the national guard, but also to provide food, grooming products and illegal recreational activities (parties, concerts, etc.).
Protests, riots and escapes are frequent in Venezuelan prisons. The OVP states that the main reasons for protests are poor living conditions in correctional facilities (poor health, hunger, illness), lack of transfer to the courts and ill-treatment by the Bolivarian National Guard, prison staff and the Corrections System Immediate Seizure Group (Grupo de Requisa Inmediata Carcelaria, GRIC).
The most common ways of protesting are hunger strikes, blood strikes (self-mutilation) and “stitched mouths” (“bocas cosidas”). During the first quarter of 2015 alone, the OVP registered 1,220 stitched mouths, 14 escapes (in which 79 inmates successfully escaped), 6 riots and 6 kidnappings of officials in 20 police stations. These events left a total of 49 injured and 9 dead.
On 26 April 2015, 40 detainees at the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) command headquarters in Catia (Caracas) took two officers hostage to demand that they be transferred to a penitentiary because they had been detained for eight months there. The riot ended with the death of an inmate and the transfer of another 25. The PNB facilities in Catia have capacity for 50 people but were housing up to 186 at the time of the riot1.
The number of abductions of prison personnel by prisoners to demand better conditions treatment from the MPPSP has increased considerably in recent years.
The NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad reported a riot at El Rodeo II (Caracas), on 22 October 20152. A group of prisoners took eight people hostage to protest against the abuse and mistreatment by guards and the lack of food. Two inmates died: the first was shot from outside when he climbed up to the roof to place a banner, and the second died of suffocation from the tear gas bombs launched by security forces inside the compound to try to regain control of the police station.
After the death of Teófilo Rodríguez (alias “El Conejo”), the pran at San Antonio prison (Margarita), in January 2016, inmates at the correctional facility he controlled decided to pay homage to him by going up to the roof and firing their weapons into the air. An “homage” video, broadcast on social networks, revealed the lack of control of prison staff at certain institutions, and the free circulation of heavy artillery3.
In early August 2016, the pran at the PGV (Guárico), Franklin Masacre, kidnapped 51 people to demand that the MPPSP transfer 2,000 more inmates so that he could charge the causa to more people. The ministry complied with the demand a few days later.
On 14 September a grenade exploded in the prison, leaving 12 dead and 23 wounded. This showed that the theft of 84 grenades from Fort Conopoima was orchestrated by the pranes at the PGV. Under threat of intervention by the armed forces4, more than 300 relatives were brought into the facility. For several weeks there was a media confrontation on social networks between the MPPSP and the pranes at the PGV: the MPPSP posted videos of mass graves, mutilations and other crimes committed by the inmates, while the pranes filmed inmates suffering from tuberculosis, corpses and relatives asking for the intervention to be cancelled.
The Bolivarian National Guard intervened on 22 October with heavy artillery to regain control of the situation5. The prison was closed and the inmates were transferred to other prisons in the country. Four inmates and Franklin Hernández (“Masacre”) were charged for their responsibility in the events.
Termina motín en sede de la PNB en Catia con un preso muerto, El Estímulo, 27 April, 2015 (in Spanish)↩
Armas, drogas y caniches: vida y muerte de un líder carcelario en Venezuela, Vice 28 January 2016 (in Spanish)↩
Fuerte tiroteo sacudió la Penitenciaría General de Venezuela, El Universal, 21 October 2016 (in Spanish)↩
Security and safety
The OVP points out that in prisons where the New Prison Regime is in effect (in which a quasi-military discipline is imposed), the disciplinary actions taken do not respect the human rights of prisoners. The most commonly practiced disciplinary measures are prolonged isolation and suspension of the water supply.
In the OVP’s 2015 report, the following circumstances are described: “According to relatives of inmates, in some centres such as the Fenix Community Penitentiary, solitary confinement can last up to 15 days and during the entire time inmates are denied food and visits. In the case of the annexes, it has been discovered that women are locked up in punishment cells where tear gas and pellets are thrown at them and their hair is cut against their will, among other things.”
The OVP has received countless reports of abuses perpetrated by the MPPSP’s Immediate Response Unit (URI), the division in charge of carrying out searches of the cells where INOF women are located. The inmates report being beaten and sexually abused during searches.