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Venezuelan Prison Study Exposes House of Horrors

Corrections: Human rights group says institutions are overcrowded, dirty, falling apart and dangerous. Prisoners can't survive without weapons, one says.

January 12, 1997|BART JONES | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CARACAS, Venezuela — Richard Moncada's world is a tiny portion of an 8- by 12-foot cell he shares with eight other inmates.

They sleep elbow-to-elbow on a concrete floor, bathe from the same water bucket in a corner, and relieve themselves in plastic bags they toss out a barred window onto an open-air patio.

Their constant companions are sharpened slivers of metal for protection from each other and throughout the wretched La Planta prison. Thoughts are of survival, not rehabilitation.

"It's a constant war," said Moncada, a convicted murderer. "Whoever doesn't have a knife can't survive."

Another inmate, Antonio Pedrosa, agreed. "They've practically sentenced us to death because whoever enters here and doesn't defend himself dies."

La Planta is one of the worst jails in a prison system that is bad even by Latin America's low standards. Guards were accused of igniting a fire that burned 25 inmates to death in October when they fired tear gas canisters into a crammed cell.

"The jails in Venezuela are insanely overcrowded . . . incredibly filthy, falling apart and dangerous," said Joanne Mariner, director of the prison project at Human Rights Watch/Americas.

The Washington-based group contends that the jails in Venezuela, along with those in Brazil, are the worst in the hemisphere. Pope John Paul II blessed nearby Catia prison during a visit in February to call attention to the desperate plight of prisoners in the region.

The deadly Oct. 22 fire at La Planta was the latest in a string of bloody incidents at Venezuelan prisons.

In 1994, 108 inmates died during a riot and fire at Sabaneta prison in the western city of Maracaibo.

During a failed coup in 1992, guards at Catia allegedly opened the gates and told inmates that they could flee because army rebels overthrew the government. Then guards opened fire, massacring at least 65 prisoners, human right groups say. Bodies floated down a river that passes by the jail.

Last year, 244 prisoners were slain in Venezuelan prisons, either by guards or other inmates, according to Justice Ministry data. Inmates have shot, burned, stabbed and beheaded rivals. Weapon sweeps by guards turn up not only homemade knives, but automatic handguns and, occasionally, grenades.

Venezuela's 32 prisons hold 25,000 inmates, or nearly twice as many as the 15,500 they were built to house. Only one of every four has had their day in court. The rest await trials, sometimes for years.

Many inmates openly carry "chuzos," or homemade knives, even on visiting days when family members with precious bags of food mix with prisoners in the cellblocks. Guards are so few as to seem invisible.

Breakfast is weak coffee and a small piece of bread, lunch an unappetizing bowl of spaghetti or rice and beans. There is no dinner--the Justice Ministry's food budget of 380 bolivars (81 cents) a day per inmate doesn't allow it.

"Sometimes you're better off not even going up to eat and staying hungry," said Wilfredo Rodriguez, an inmate at Catia.

Prisoners sleep in hallways, beneath stairwells, two or three to a bed, or in makeshift outdoor tents.

Drinking water from corroded bathroom pipes is rife with bacteria and parasites. Medical care is minimal. Prisoners stitch their own wounds. Cases of AIDS, tuberculosis and typhoid are increasing.

Idle for lack of rehabilitation programs, many inmates numb themselves with marijuana, heroin or crack cocaine smuggled into the prison by guards.

Drugs, guns, knives and "favors"--such as transportation to court or the hospital--are sold by guards who can match their monthly salary of $83 in a day, said Arturo Peraza, a Jesuit seminarian and lawyer who provides legal aid to Catia inmates.

New inmates must defend themselves or find someone to protect them. Those who do not may be raped or killed.

Sometimes the price of protection is becoming a "slave" who cooks, cleans and provides sexual favors to a gang leader, Peraza said. Some are branded with electric hot plates on their backs or buttocks.

Antonio Marval, the national prisons director, blames the hellish conditions partly on a $13-million budget that he says isn't even one-sixth of what is needed.

Nevertheless, he contends that prisons are improving. This year, authorities fired 350 guards and eight wardens who were accused of corruption or mismanagement.

La Planta was once part of a Justice Ministry program aimed at making it a model jail. Today, it is an example of what is wrong.

Wealthier inmates bribe authorities to live in "La Cabana"--the cabin--an isolated area that features air-conditioned rooms and a patio with palm trees. During a reporter's visit, a stereo played classical music and an inmate talked on a cellular telephone. Another practiced playing a trumpet.

Most prisoners live in cramped cells and wake up to the smell of rotting garbage and raw sewage. Some rarely leave their cells; others freely wander hallways and offices.

Security is lax. No more than 12 guards are on duty at any one time for La Planta's 1,600 inmates. There should be at least 100, said Ivan Martinez, the fourth warden this year.

Accused pickpockets and inmates as young as 16 share cells with violent criminals. Space is so tight at La Planta that inmates moved back into the cell where the 25 men were burned alive.

"It's a world of horrors," Peraza said.

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