PUNISHMENT BEFORE TRIAL
Prison Conditions in Venezuela
March 1997, ISBN 1-56432-201-7
SUMMARY | RECOMMENDATIONS | TABLE OF CONTENTS
Overcrowded, understaffed, physically deteriorated, and rife with weapons, drugs and gangs, Venezuela's prisons have a deservedly poor reputation. Although their notoriety largely springs from a few brutal outbursts of violence -- including the 1994 massacre of over one hundred inmates at Sabaneta prison and the 1996 killing of twenty-five inmates at La Planta prison -- these are simply the most newsworthy among countless violent incidents. The prisons' appalling violence, moreover, emerges from a host of other chronic problems.
By the mid-1980s, prisons in Venezuela were already in a state of crisis, and by 1994 the crisis had worsened to such an extent that the Venezuelan Public Ministry warned that it "threaten[ed] democratic stability." In 1996, the prison system's defects drew international scrutiny, as delegations from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the European Parliament, Human Rights Watch/Americas and Amnesty International visited Venezuela and urged the government to institute reforms.
Expressing increased concern over the prison situation in recent years, the government has tried new strategies such as posting the National Guard within the prisons and delegating administrative power over the prisons to state governments. But such measures have neither substantially reduced prison violence nor relieved their other serious problems. Progress has at best been incremental. Notably, however, as part of a declared effort to "humanize" the prison system, the Ministry of Justice did succeed in closing Catia prison in Caracas, this past January, replacing it with two modern prison annexes.
Besides benefiting the prisoners who were confined there, the closing of Catia prison was a symbolically important step. As much or more than any other prison in the country, Catia epitomized the worst aspects of the Venezuelan prison system. One of the country's most violent and overcrowded facilities and the site of a brutal 1992 prisoner massacre, it had been slated for closure for years. In March 1996, when a Human Rights Watch/Americas delegation visited Venezuela, several expert observers, voicing general skepticism over the prospects for prison reform, told us that they believed the facility would never close. Catia's recent closure is, of course, only one step in the direction of alleviating the enormous systemic problems of the Venezuelan prison system, but it is hopefully a first step. Having eliminated a potent symbol of the system's defects, the Venezuelan authorities still face the real test of eradicating them in substance.
Human Rights Watch/Americas visited eleven Venezuelan prisons during a three-week mission to the country in March 1996. Our inspections of these facilities, in addition to our discussions with numerous government officials, academics, representatives of nongovernmental organizations and prison inmates, convinced us that a thorough reform of the Venezuelan prison system is urgently required. The government initiatives undertaken since our visit, although some of them are encouraging, are insufficient to remedy the system's massive defects. Moreover, the inauspicious history of prison reform in Venezuela counsels against an incremental, piecemeal approach. Given the seriousness of the problems at issue and the need to resolve them without delay, we urge the government to formulate a national emergency plan for the amelioration of the prison system.
The conditions of Venezuela's prisons violate both Venezuelan law and international human rights standards binding on Venezuela. One fundamental problem is that the country's prisons are dangerously overcrowded, housing over 24,000 inmates in facilities designed for just over 15,000. Some facilities, including Sabaneta and Ciudad Bolívar, among others, contain several times the number of prisoners they were built to house. Because space is at such a premium, inmates routinely sleep two or three to a bed, or even on passageway floors. The overcrowding at Sabaneta is so acute, in fact, that a number of prisoners are forced to sleep in hammocks strung up in the air in narrow pipe-access passageways between corridors of cells. Further exacerbating the situation at Sabaneta and other prisons is the fact that available space is unevenly distributed: prisoners with power or money generally obtain roomier quarters for themselves while their poorer, weaker fellows share what remains.
Compounding the overcrowding crisis is the fact that nearly three-quarters of Venezuelan prisoners have not been convicted of any crime and should not, in principle, even be detained. There are two basic reasons why Venezuelan prisons hold such disproportionate and unjustifiable numbers of unsentenced prisoners. First, most criminal defendants are incarcerated rather than granted provisional liberty while their prosecutions are pending, violating binding international standards that require that pretrial release generally be granted. Second -- because the justice system is inefficient, overwhelmed, and politicized; because criminal proceeding are conducted under an antiquated procedural code; and because prisoners lack access to effective legal counsel and, frequently, even lack physical access to the courts -- criminal cases in Venezuela typically drag out for years. Particularly when defendants are detained, this undue delay violates binding international standards requiring that criminal proceeding be completed in a reasonable time. Although reform of the judicial system and of the code of criminal procedure is currently under discussion -- and will hopefully lead to important improvements -- the existing situation is terribly abusive.
Venezuela's prison overcrowding, in conjunction with other ills, exacts an intolerable individual cost. Most fundamental is the cost in lives. According to official statistics, 207 prisoners were killed and 1,133 prisoners were injured in Venezuelan prisons in 1996 -- in other words, an weekly average of four prisoners killed and more than twenty injured. Facilitating this epidemic of violence are weapons of all types, including knives, machetes, and pistols; even grenades are occasionally found in the prisons. In one facility that Human Rights Watch/Americas visited, prisoners displayed weapons openly: they walked around the prison grounds with long machetes in their hands or home-made firearms stuck in their waistbands. In other prisons where inmates' weapons were hidden, their numerous wounds and scars remained visible, attesting to the constant violence.
In this harsh environment, many inmates profit from exploiting and abusing others. A constant refrain among prisoners we met was "only the strong survive." The strongest and most powerful prisoners eat well, live in more comfortable surroundings, make money off others and have others do their bidding. In contrast, the weakest and least powerful prisoners suffer all of the worst deprivations of prison life. They sleep on the floor in crowded passageways; they clean other prisoners' cells; their belongings are stolen; they are mistreated, beaten, and raped. Often this violence and extortion is gang-related. The traffic in arms, as well as the prisons' substantial drug traffic, is generally controlled by gangs; the large amounts of money at stake encourage violent gang clashes.
Abetting this prisoner-on-prisoner violence and exploitation is the absence of a rational system of prisoner classification. Venezuelan prisons mix unsentenced prisoners with sentenced ones, healthy prisoners with sick ones, and first-time petty offenders with murderers and rapists. Indeed, in one of the most glaring violations of classification norms, juvenile prisoners mix with adults at La Planta prison in Caracas. Representatives from Human Rights Watch/Americas spoke to one young inmate who, when he was seventeen years old, was viciously raped at La Planta prison by a group of older prisoners.
Rather than continually risk their safety, some prisoners try to retreat from the dangerous prison environment. Nearly every facility we visited had one or more groups of "refugees": prisoners who are weak, old, or otherwise unable to live with the general prison population. Such prisoners abandon the regular cellblocks to live in ad hoc areas of refuge -- often converted classrooms, administrative rooms, and disciplinary cells -- and often mixed together with prisoners in disciplinary segregation. For such prisoners, greater security comes at the cost of much greater overcrowding, worse conditions, and little or no access to recreation and other activities.
The prisons' lack of safety is the direct result of their lack of security staff. At several prisons that Human Rights Watch/Americas visited, there was only one guard on duty for every 150 or more prisoners. Given these proportions, meaningful control of the prison population is sporadic at best. Guards, moreover, are untrained, low-paid, and, in consequence, too often corrupt. Their interest in profiting from their contacts with prisoners -- by facilitating cell transfers, permitting visits, turning a blind eye to contraband -- severely interferes with their ability to manage their formal responsibilities.
The Ministry of Justice, recognizing the inability of its existing civilian staff to maintain adequate control over the prison population, has lately increased the military's presence in the prisons. In December 1994, after a year of appalling prison violence, the ministry called in the National Guard to ensure the internal security of seven Venezuelan prisons. (The National Guard, a branch of the armed forces within the Ministry of Defense, is normally responsible only for ensuring the prisons' external security.) Although since then the extent of military intervention has varied over time and among prisons, the existence of any military control over the prisons is extremely worrisome.
In the course of our prison inspections, Human Rights Watch/Americas discovered rampant physical abuse of prisoners by the members of the National Guard. Prisoners described how members of the Guard beat them, kicked them, or hit them with sabers on little or no provocation. Not only did countless prisoners report such abuses, their complaints were corroborated by abundant physical evidence. We saw scores of prisoners with bruised and bleeding buttocks, attesting to the wholesale nature of the punishment meted out by members of the National Guard. In the infirmaries of several prisons, moreover, we met prisoners who had been badly beaten or shot by members of the Guard.
Overall, the National Guard's approach to its expanded prison duties reflects its status as a military force. In military fashion, it has "occupied" the prisons, intimidated the prison population, and imposed its authority through the frequent application of brute force. The most deadly recent proof of its unsuitability for work in the prisons was provided in October 1996, when a fire caused by members of the Guard killed twenty-five trapped inmates in La Planta prison.
Venezuela's prison law recognizes the military's inherent unfitness for prison duties by requiring that the prisons remain under civilian authority and by permitting military intervention only in "exceptional" circumstances. Were there any doubts about the wisdom of this general rule, the National Guard's shameful record of abusing prisoners should have eliminated them. As numerous persons interviewed by Human Rights Watch/Americas emphasized, the job of prison guard is simply not an appropriate military function.
Rather than look to the National Guard for support that it is ill-equipped to provide, the Ministry of Justice should respond to Venezuela's epidemic of prison violence by hiring more civilian guards. Although the ministry is undoubtedly prompted to rely on the services of the military as a means to conserve scarce fiscal resources, it has an overriding obligation to restore order to the prisons without violating prisoners' basic right to be free of physical violence.
On this point, it should be noted that the Public Ministry (Fiscalía General de la República) is also responsible for protecting prisoners from physical abuse. Employing fifteen prison prosecutors who monitor prison conditions and, in principle, receive prisoners' complaints of abuse, the ministry has the power to initiate the criminal prosecution of public officials who violate prisoners' rights. The extent to which it exercises this power, however, is open to question. In discussions with representatives of Human Rights Watch/Americas, officials within the Public Ministry claimed that many such prosecutions were pending, but they were unable to name a single specific case of a public official successfully prosecuted for abuses committed against a prisoner. Notably, the most deadly of Venezuelan prison abuses -- including the 1992 Catia prison massacre and the 1994 Sabaneta prison massacre -- have not resulted in a single criminal conviction, although criminal proceedings are still formally pending in those cases. As Human Rights Watch/Americas and others have previously described, procedural aspects of Venezuelan law, particularly the nudo hecho proceeding, often delay prosecutions enormously and thus contribute to impunity for official abuses. Also, as in the Sabaneta case, the use of military tribunals in cases involving abuses against prisoners greatly increases the likelihood of impunity, given that such tribunals lack judicial independence and impartiality. For that reason, Human Rights Watch/Americas welcomes the Supreme Court's recent ruling in the La Planta fire prosecution, which resolved a jurisdictional conflict between military and civilian courts in favor of the latter.
To their credit, officials within the Public Ministry have been significantly more diligent in monitoring and reporting on the poor physical condition of many prisons, and have conducted numerous prison inspections. As Human Rights Watch/Americas observed during its March 1996 mission, many prison facilities are physically deteriorated, unsanitary, and in need of repair, although a few remodeled facilities have markedly better conditions. Sporadic running water, broken toilets, clogged drains, dangerous webs of electrical wiring, crumbling walls, unlit interior corridors, and unhygienic kitchens were among the common problems we found. Areas within some facilities lacked functioning toilets and running water, forcing inmates to defecate in buckets or on newspaper and then to throw their waste out the window. Moreover, the prison authorities' failure to maintain the physical infrastructure of their facilities was matched by their failure to supply prisoners with necessary material goods. Left to provide their own mattresses, bedding, clothing, and, to a lesser extent, food, Venezuelan prisoners must rely on their families for financial assistance. Prisoners lacking outside support, known as fritos, are often forced to work for other prisoners, in what can amount to a degrading form of servitude.
The lack of provision of basic goods and services in the prisons extends to medical care, which is rudimentary at best. The Ministry of Justice, in a 1995 study, characterized the state of medical care in the prisons as deficient to the point of collapse. Similarly, the Subcommission on Prison Matters, in a 1996 summary of the previous year's conditions, stated that provisions for medical assistance were "notably absent" from Venezuelan prisons. Consistent with these reports, Human Rights Watch/Americas representatives received numerous complaints about deficiencies in medical attention, most frequently that infirmaries lacked even the most basic medical supplies and that guards did not permit access to medical staff. At some prisons, inmates displayed exposed intestines or festering wounds for our inspection while describing the difficulty of obtaining treatment. At all of the prisons we visited, medical staff was exceedingly scarce. Even large facilities typically had only one or two nurses on duty, with doctors available part-time, sometimes only a few hours each week. Finally, conditions for mentally ill prisoners at the facilities visited by Human Rights Watch/Americas were appalling, and psychological treatment appeared to be nonexistent.
These deficiencies violate Venezuelan law, which requires that prisoners be provided basic medical care, and contravene international standards calling for daily medical supervision of prisoners who are sick or who complain of illnesses. As with the prisons' other failings, the lack of medical attention forces inmates to depend on family members and friends to provide them with medical supplies.
Given the importance of outside support, the liberal visiting policies of Venezuelan prisons are of great benefit to the prison population. Most prisons have two visiting days per week, one of which is reserved for conjugal visits. Although friends and family members must sometimes wait in long lines before entering the facilities, once inside they generally enjoy extended visits with prisoners. Notably, all visits are contact visits, with no barriers to prevent physical contact between prisoners and visitors.
Unfortunately, guard mistreatment of visitors, in the form of physical abuse, disrespect, and financial extortion, is a serious problem. The strongest complaints we received on this topic involved searches of visitors, especially vaginal and strip searches. Prisoners described how their family members were subjected to extremely intrusive searches as the cost of a visit, asserting that the purpose of such searches -- and their inevitable effect -- is to humiliate the visitor. Despite the fact that searches of women visitors are conducted by female staff, and that prison authorities have legitimate security concerns to motivate such searches, the wide discretion permitted authorities in conducting such searches is inconsistent with international standards protecting personal privacy and barring degrading treatment. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has ruled, intrusive searches of prison visitors have a high potential for causing shame and distress and therefore merit a correspondingly stringent degree of oversight and control.
A final problem affecting almost the entire Venezuelan prison population is idleness. The bouts of violence that characterize Venezuelan prisons break up what is otherwise unrelenting boredom. In general, prisoners have few constructive ways to occupy their time. Work and study opportunities are extremely scarce and, in some prisons, even recreational activities are limited. Not only does the lack of such opportunities frustrate prisoners' attempts at rehabilitation, it bars them from gaining early release. Under the "two for one" law (Ley de Redención de la Pena por el Trabajo y el Estudio), prisoners are able to reduce their sentences by one day for every two days of work or study. Without access to work or study opportunities, however, many prisoners are unable to satisfy the terms of the law.
Women prisoners, who make up only 4.5 percent of the Venezuelan prison population, are subject to most of the deficiencies affecting men prisoners, though to a lesser degree. On the whole, women's facilities tend to be cleaner, less overcrowded and better maintained than the men's facilities, with proportionally larger staffs, little violence, and greater work and recreational opportunities. Civilian staff at the women's facilities have friendlier relations with prisoners than do staff at any of the men's prisons. At several facilities, for example, we saw staff and prisoners talking and laughing together.
On the other hand, women prisoners face particular difficulties in their relationships with their families. Because tremendous stigma still attaches to women's incarceration, the families of women prisoners are likely to find it hard to accept the fact of their imprisonment. As a result, women prisoners tend to receive fewer visits than do men. Many women prisoners receive no family support; indeed, they often support children living both inside and outside of the prison. Under Venezuelan law, women can keep their infants with them in prison until age three.
Relevant to maintaining family ties is the issue of conjugal visits. In contrast to the permissive conjugal visiting policy extended male prisoners, women were until recently wholly denied such visits. In mid-1995, after extensive debate on the issue, the women's prison in Caracas began conducting a pilot program of allowing women prisoners strictly regulated conjugal visits. The visitor must be the woman's spouse or legally registered common-law husband; the woman must have an excellent conduct record while incarcerated; both partners must undergo an initial battery of tests, including HIV tests and psychiatric evaluations, as well as periodic testing for venereal disease; and the woman must agree to use birth control. The effect of these controls is to bar all but a handful of women from benefiting from the new policy. In the view of Human Rights Watch/Americas, such dramatically different treatment of women compared to men with regard to the granting of conjugal visits constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex, prohibited by several international human rights instruments whose provisions are binding on Venezuela.
Such is the general state of Venezuelan prisons. Within this overall picture, of course, a few facilities merit special mention. Representing one extreme is the Ciudad Bolívar prison, located in southeastern Venezuela. This extremely overcrowded facility was a beehive of construction when the Human Rights Watch/Americas delegation visited it. Prisoners had taken over all control of the facility's physical infrastructure and, using cinder blocks that they paid guards to allow in, they were erecting makeshift shelters in formerly open areas. Open sewage canals cut through various parts of the facility, and webs of electric wires ran haphazardly through prisoners' living quarters, a clear fire hazard. The prison was essentially being transformed into a crowded shantytown, with "ranchitos," as the prison warden described these shelters, scattered about the prison grounds. Even the exterior hallways of certain cellblocks were being divided up in small cells. Despite this construction, overcrowding was such that many prisoners were still forced to sleep in hammocks or on the floor in open areas such as hallways.
The original facility consisted of two two-story cellblocks for men, plus a one-story women's annex a short distance away. Approximately four years ago, however, inmates destroyed the wall separating the women from the men, and the women's annex was incorporated into the larger men's facility. Some forty women prisoners, some with babies, mingled with a men's population of over 1,000. Not a guard was to be seen within the prison. Men carrying weapons fought over buckets of food. A prisoner lay by the gate of the facility paralyzed, with a bullet lodged in his spine from a recent shooting. What was finally most striking about the facility was the absolute abandonment of control by the prison authorities: the root cause of its other symptoms.
In contrast to this picture of disorder and neglect, the women's annex of Sabaneta prison in Maracaibo was notable for its excellent state of repair, cleanliness, and safety. Built in 1989, parts of the annex seem more like an apartment complex than a prison. Many women lived in single rooms with wooden doors, rather than in barred cells. Rooms, many of which boasted fresh paint, were clean and orderly. The facility had a spacious library with an amply supply of books, an attractive visiting area filled with plants and big park benches, several classrooms, and a church. There was no overcrowding and no reports of violence. Women were busy working in the facility's several workshops, taking classes, exercising in the large recreation yard, and caring for their children. The only serious problem that the Human Rights Watch/Americas delegation found at the facility was a severe lack of medical supplies.
The gap between these two facilities is enormous, and it will obviously not be easy for the Venezuelan authorities to bring conditions at Ciudad Bolívar and other prisons closer to those existing at the Sabaneta women's annex, or to consistency with the mandates of Venezuelan and international law. Most critically, the project will require a greater allocation of financial resources. But Venezuela's prison crisis cannot be ascribed simply to insufficient funding. The lack of political will and the failure of each government organ to shoulder its share of the burden of improving the system are also to blame. As this report describes, a number of government organs besides the Ministry of Justice bear some responsibility for the predicament of Venezuelan prisoners. The judiciary, and the much-criticized judicial system, are largely at fault for the slow pace of criminal prosecutions and the large proportion of unsentenced prisoners. The National Guard is guilty of physically abusing prisoners and of harassing their family members. The feeble efforts of the Public Ministry in prosecuting such abuses allow them to continue. State governments have largely failed to contribute to reforms.
Faced with scarce financial resources, mounting public concern over crime, and an uneasy political landscape, the Venezuelan authorities responsible for reforming the prison system have a daunting task ahead of them. But no set of constraints -- neither fiscal nor political nor organizational -- could justify the disastrous conditions of the Venezuelan prison system. As this report describes, the prison situation requires urgent attention. Its current problems are the result of many years of neglect, during which other national priorities were accorded precedence in the allocation of resources. This record of deliberate indifference must end. While the current government has articulated a strong desire for prison reform, and has taken certain concrete steps in the direction of reform, it is time for it to demonstrate the necessary political will to formulate and implement the measures required.
Human Rights Watch/Americas welcomes the steps being taken by the Caldera administration to create a more humane prison system, but urges that more aggressive measures be implemented. To establish a firm foundation for such measures, we urge the government to formulate a national emergency plan for the amelioration of the prison system. The following are our most pressing recommendations for reform, which we believe merit inclusion in such a plan:
Overcrowding and the Detention of Unsentenced Prisoners
Physical Conditions and Provision of Care
Rehabilitation and the Reduction of Idleness
Contacts with the Outside World
Treatment of Women Prisoners
Monitoring of Conditions
TABLE OF CONTENTS
II. OVERVIEW OF THE PRISON SYSTEM
Monitoring of Abuses
III. OVERCROWDING AND THE FAILURE OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
IV. LIVING CONDITIONS
Bedding and Clothing
Water and Hygiene
V. PRISONER-ON-PRISONER VIOLENCE
Availability of Weapons
Gangs and Other Groupings
VI. ABUSES BY CIVILIAN AND MILITARY GUARDS
Physical Abuse by the National Guard
Corruption of Civilian Staff
VII. MEDICAL SERVICES AND FACILITIES
Chronic Shortages of Personnel and Supplies
VIII. CONTACTS WITH THE OUTSIDE
IX. WORK AND OTHER ACTIVITIES
X. WOMEN PRISONERS
Discipline, Punishment, and Relations with Civilian and Military Guards
Prisoner-on-Prisoner Violence and Staff Control
Other Contacts with Outsiders
Work, Education and Other Activities