At least 29 prisoners were killed and 19 police injured in violent clashes at a prison in Acarigua, Venezuela on May 25, 2019. According to Al Jazeera, the incident occurred when police special forces (known as FAES) tried to intervene in a mass prison break. The FAES became involved when the leader of the inmates at the prison took visitors hostage. Both sides had weapons, and the prisoners unleashed a hail of gunfire and detonated several grenades. Al Jazeera reports that the prisoners were rioting because they wanted food and to be transferred to other prisons. BBC News claims that the guards entered the block to conduct searches and free the female visitors.
This violent conflict is just the latest event in a long history of Venezuelan unrest. The prison system conditions are becoming increasingly poor. The Washington Post claims that Humberto Prado, of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, called on Venezuelan authorities to prevent incidents such as the one in Acarigua. Prado said, “We have this situation because those responsible are converting these cells into dungeons. Prisoners in Venezuela will continue to die unless something is done.” On a similar note, Al Jazeera claims that NGO director Carlos Nieto said provisional centers such as the one in Acarigua “are not suitable to hold inmates for more than 48 hours” and that “the prison system is chaotic, and the prisons ministry is not fulfilling its function.” To illustrate how bad the system is, Al Jazeera mentioned that the NGO reported that “the facilities are holding 55,000 people, even though their total capacity is just 8,000.” The Washington Post sums up the incident with one more telling quote from Prado: “How is it that there was a confrontation between prisoners and police but there are only dead prisoners? And if the prisoners had weapons, how did those weapons get in?”
The event and the response by different organizations makes it clear that the prison system in Venezuela needs to be amended. The entire prison system is holding almost seven times more inmates than it was designed to. BBC News indicates that the Acarigua prison was holding double what it should have been. These poor conditions are creating an environment that breeds violence. The overcrowding and lack of adequate food and other resources is exacerbating tensions between the prisoners and the system that is treating them unjustly. While the prisoners cannot be praised for their violent actions, the motives behind their violence are clear. This trend of violence, however, does not have to continue. For Venezuela, there are two potential paths to solving this problem. First, the country can build more prisons and detainment centers to alleviate the overcrowding. Second, and more importantly, the country needs to evaluate what crimes they are going to continue to imprison people for. Clearly the system was not designed to hold this many criminals, so there are many more people going to prison than the country expected. Both of these solutions will help lessen the overcrowding and create better conditions for those in prisons throughout the country. This will then decrease the unrest among the prisoners and help prevent further violence.
Unfortunately, this was not the first incident of its kind in Venezuela. According to Al Jazeera, Venezuela has one of the worst prison violence records in South America. In March 2018, 68 inmates were killed in a fire at a jail in Valencia. Another incident in August 2017 left 37 prisoners dead after a riot broke out. Since 2011, it is believed that more than 400 people have died in the Venezuelan prisons. Some of these deaths are due to violence, while others are due to inadequate medical care and a lack of food.
The injustices that sparked the recent conflict are nothing new, and can be clearly seen in the prison system’s recent history. If conditions within the prisons continue to worsen, the country will see more of these violent uprisings. The only way to prevent further violence is to clean up the prison system. Offenders who do not deserve to be incarcerated for long periods of time should receive punishment outside of the prison system to slow down the flow of people into jails. The system then needs to undergo an expansion so that those who are incarcerated are not overcrowded and have adequate resources to live. Violence is never the first answer to injustice, but for those locked within the terrible prisons in Venezuela, it is all they feel they can do to remedy their situations. Only better conditions can prevent further violence.