Portelli: Venezuelan prison system marred by violence, corruption

Venezuela experienced one of the most deadly prison riots in its nation’s history on Jan. 25. With 58 fatalities and more than 100 injured, many are questioning the Venezuelan government and its penitentiary system.

The riot took place in the notoriously violent and overcrowded Uribana prison, located in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. It erupted after a group of inmates attacked the Venezuelan National Guard soldiers who were attempting to carry out an inspection. 

Uribana, known for prevalent gang violence, is by far one of the most corrupt prisons in the country. Prison gang leaders known as “prans” control the prison by creating their own laws and marking their own territory. With the help of corrupt prison guards, prisoners are able to easily obtain illegal drugs and weapons. Violent battles frequently break out because most prisoners own guns. 

Approximately 47,000 inmates are housed in the prison, which was originally intended to hold only 12,000 inmates. “El Varón,” a man who served seven years in a Venezuelan prison, said in an article in The Guardian, “Being sent to a Venezuelan jail is like being buried in a cemetery for the barely alive. It’s a living hell, you know when you go in, but you never know when or how you’ll come out.” 

The Jan. 25 riots were not the first time a prison uprising occurred in Venezuela. Back in 1992, a riot in a Caracas prison killed 60 people. Two years later, a similar incident occurred in the city of Maracaibo when a fire set by inmates killed 100 people. 

While the government has made some attempts to amend the conditions in prisons like Uribana, it is clear that there is still much room for improvement. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been in Cuba for the last six weeks undergoing treatment for his latest cancer surgery, has acknowledged that his previous initiatives to improve the penitentiary system have not worked. In 2011, Chavez formed the Ministry of Penitentiary Services, which was dedicated to improving inhumane conditions in prisons and guaranteeing health and education to those incarcerated.

While his administration has attempted to build new prisons and appropriate more funds, little progress has been made to decrease the amount of violent riots that occur in these prisons every year. According to VenezuelaAnalysis.com, critics of the government have responded to the reoccurrence of prison riots. In a press release from opposition coalition organization MUD, the group argued that, “The creation of the new Ministry of Prison Services has only made the prison violence worse,” and cited more than 600 prison deaths since Iris Varela became the new prisons minister in 2011. The government’s problem is its inability to disarm the prison population.  

In order for reform to be successful there must be a complete transformation of the Venezuelan penitentiary system. The prisons should serve as rehabilitation centers rather than jailhouses. Prisoners in Uribana live in brutal conditions – Inmates sleep on tattered hammocks and are given little medical care and diseases like tuberculosis and cholera run rampant. It is the government’s responsibility to limit the amount of violence. The issue of prison conditions has reached a boiling point in Venezuela and can no longer be ignored.