The PGV is just one small glimpse of hell

Tocuyito Prison (located outside Valencia) was the most violent prison in Venezuela last year with 61 deaths.

The Guardian’s Virginia Lopez offers a inside look into the General Penitentiary of Venezuela (the PGV), located in Guárico State. While she’s not the first journalist to go inside this prison, she offers a hair-raising report.

The PGV is dubbed “the Beverly Hills of Venezuelan prisons”, but that doesn’t change the fact that behind its walls, power doesn’t belong to the State, but to gang chieftains known as pranes. Take it away, Virginia:

For the prisoners at the general penitentiary, in San Juan de los Morros, 55 miles south of Caracas, that means jail can seem like a surreal, hedonistic pleasure palace, or the cruellest hellhole. It depends what side of the jail they are in.

Divided from the main hallways by a pockmarked wall is an area designated by prison leaders for those prisoners judged too unruly to abide by unwritten prison codes. In this “jail within a jail”, the music is barely audible and no one is in the mood to party. Emaciated men live on top of one other in makeshift hammocks made of tattered sheets. Many cough – the result of a TB epidemic that goes largely unreported and untreated. Walls are riddled with bullet holes and the stench of sewage mixes with the scent of marijuana.

Most men here do nothing but wait out a sentence that has yet to arrive. Human rights activists say almost 70% of inmates are being held in pre-trial detention. Some do odd jobs, such as fixing broken air-conditioners or painting the walls of the main prison. Their wages – paid by the pran – finance their drug habits.

As Human Rights Watch put it in its 2013 World Report, the situation is one of “…weak security, deteriorating infrastructure, overcrowding, insufficient and poorly trained guards, and corruption allow armed gangs to effectively control prisons.”

After the terrible events in Uribana Prison, the crisis of our penitentiary system continues to be very grim. The latest findings of the NGO Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (OVP) in its annual report confirms it and, given that the official policy is to withhold any official information (with some counted exceptions) this is probably the closest we can come to finding out about what is really happening.

Last year, there were 591 deaths in our jails, 31 more than in 2011. In the eighteen months since the creation of the Prison Ministry, 869 inmates have lost their lives and 1,685 have been injured. Shortly after the OVP report went public, one of the Ministry’s employees was caught trying to introduce ammunition into Santa Ana Prison … through an ambulance.

The biggest problem continues to be overcrowding: as of December 31st, the total number of inmates was 48,262 and 60% of them had not been sentenced. All Venezuelan prisons combined have a capacity for 16,539 people, and right now there’s an excess of 31,723, which is more than double. The recent closing of Uribana has just made matters even worse.

Meanwhile for one inmate killed in Uribana, death was not even the end of his journey to hell. In what must count as one of the most garishly over-the-top examples of the country’s headlong descent into lunacy, one of the prans killed at Uribana recently had his gravesite dug up in the middle of the night, his remains doused in gasoline and then set on fire. True story.

(HT: Mayke Santos)

Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.


  1. I’m not excusing the lunacy, per se. But just imagine for a moment, that news of the pran’s death reached the family of one of the inmates who was persecuted to death by that very pran. I could then understand (not condone) the lunacy of unearthing the pran’s body and setting fire to it, in a sign of revenge for the lunacy he exerted on all those under his “reign” of terror.

  2. No worries!
    I was rather surprised for the rawness of such an article in the little world of Guardianites…
    Fabians tend to have this moronic attitude towards leftist regimes.
    Thanks god comments were not allowed this time. Ask FT for the cayapa he suffered last time.

  3. One aspect that is seldom mentioned: not only are our prisons overcrowded, but our streets are teeming with criminals. There must be tens of thousands of murderers roaming our streets with total impunity – what happens when/if we have a decent system and we catch them?

    We need to invest in many more prisons, not just for the prisoners we have, but for all those we *should* have.

    • If 60% are in fact awaiting trial, might also want to move away from the ‘cash based’ model of justice that exists now to a more efficient, transparent and effective trial based system (like they still teach in Venezuelan law schools).

      • Over time we’re going to have to start to get serious about alternatives to prison-while-awaiting trial. Things like electronic monitoring, both outside and inside prisons can reduce risk, overcrowding and cost all at once, and are much more efective than a “regimen de presentación.” There are plenty of options a serious government could look at to improve prison management. But while people are making $2.5 million a year per jail, well…

  4. the total number of inmates was 48,262 … All Venezuelan prisons combined have a capacity for 16,539 people, and right now there’s an excess of 31,723, which is more than double.

    The last point seems to understate the problem – that the excess is double the capacity is off the target. The most straightforward comparison is that the load is
    three times the capacity.

  5. I personally stayed one month in this penitentiary . I am a white young European woman . The conditions are un describable .. But I will say I felt safe and protected once I entered them prison gates . I found the officials police etc .. To be very scary is the word I would use also intimidating . Corruption also . Nobody in the prison asked me for anything or nor toke anything off me . The boss inmates made me feel welcome n safe whilst in this penitentiary


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here