Venezuela's Prison Shame

Since 2000, Venezuela’s prison capacity has grown by 1,200 places, thanks to the expansion of Yare Penitenciary and the construction of a new jail in Coro. In the same period, our prison population has grown from about 25,000 to 37,700. (Other estimates peg it at 38,100.)

Depending on whose numbers you want to go with, the currently installed prison capacity was designed for 17,000 to 22,000 inmates.

To match Brazil’s incarceration rate – far from the highest around – Venezuela would need to imprison 72,000 people.

The Chávez era has seen no fewer than 11 different interior ministers and 17 different vice-ministers for prisons who, between them, have announced 10 separate prison reform and “humanization” plans.

There are two people awaiting or being tried (procesados) in Venezuelan jails for every one person serving out a sentence (penados.)

More than 4,000 people died in Venezuelan jails between 1999 and 2009 – averaging more than one fatality per day every year since 2006. In Colombia, with two to three times our prison population, fewer than 40 inmates are killed each year.

The Venezuelan State has been ordered repeatedly, since 2007, to take urgent action to safeguard the lives of inmates at four Venezuelan jails (La Pica, Yare, Uribana and El Rodeo) by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights and has responding by threatening to prosecute the head of the NGO that brought the cases, Humberto Prado, for Treason and instigating civil rebellion.

But facts and figures only tell part of the story of Venezuela’s prison shame. To really get a sense of the scale of the scandal, you have to look at things like that photo on top of this post. You have to grasp that guns, drugs and cash circulate freely in Venezuela’s jails. That a number of jails have no safe drinking water, and in most cases family members are expected to provide most or all of the food consumed by inmates.

In most cases, Prison Guards consider their job limited to securing the perimeter, making little to no effort to check what happens inside prison gates. Inmates receive little to no medical attention. Rehabilitation? Yer kiddin’, right?

There are no short-cuts here, no magic formulas. Venezuela needs at least 50,000 additional prison places – and massive investment in recruiting, training and supporting a specialized force of prison guards and support staff, alongside a concerted push to improve court efficiency to prevent the outrageous denial of justice crouching behind that ghastly bureaucratic euphemism – “procedural delay” – because no right minded person can stomach a  system where poor people who can’t afford fancy lawyers or the bribes needed to nudge their files through the court system get stuck in hideously violent jails for years on end while they await trial.

Jail is only one stage in the flow process that is the Criminal Justice System. To stress the massive nature of the investment needed here is not to deny or obscure the need for balanced investment both earlier and later in the pipeline. In isolation, even massive investment in jails will not help us make inroads into Venezuela’s ghoulish crime stats.

And yet, we should be clear: the prison system we have is a national embarrassment, and making it larger, more humane, fairer, and more better able to keep the dangerously violent off the street needs to be a top priority for The Day After.