The Forgotten Few: The State Of Prisons In A Deteriorating Venezuela

The state of Venezuelan society has quickly dissolved, going from being hailed as a beacon of democracy in the region to borderline collapse over the span of a few years. All levels of society have been greatly impacted by these events, and while international monitoring has been effective in highlighting the crisis from many angles, there is one segment of society which has been consistently overlooked: criminals and the incarcerated. While already festering in deplorable conditions, the collapse of the nation’s economy and subsequent political changes have only exacerbated the suffering experienced by Venezuelan prisoners. It is important to understand the nature of the Venezuelan collapse, as well as the events precluding it, to fully comprehend why the prison system is operating in this manner and how it can be approached moving forward.

The rise of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of Venezuela in 1998 was quickly followed by a dramatic upsurge in the global price of oil. A fortuitous trend, this leap encouraged the Chavez government to exploit the massive oil reserves found within Venezuela, considered the largest in the world. This economic decision was a wise one, serving to prop up the Venezuelan economy throughout the early 2000s, allowing the Venezuelan people to enjoy a high quality of life in comparison to other countries in the region, as well as providing the government with ample spending power. Directing their spending towards the formation and provision of social services, the Chavez government relied on a populist strategy to ease tensions within the country, creating a complacent population which was reliant on government programs for food, education and health care. It was hoped that this would allow Chavez to avoid the same fate as his predecessor and many of the regimes in the region – disposal through uprising. However, this spending was accompanied by markedly mismanaged planning, with the Chavez government failing to consider natural market fluctuations which could impact their almost exclusive reliance on oil. Overspending and a lack of diversification began to cause stagnation within the Venezuelan economy, with much of the prosperity won in the previous decade quickly disappearing.

The death of Chavez in 2013 and the subsequent election of Nicolas Maduro failed to halt this trend, with the crash of oil prices in 2015 dealing the Venezuelan economy a death blow. With a population reliant on government programs, now no longer operational due to a lack of funds, most Venezuelans – 82% according to a study conducted by the Central University of Venezuela – are living in poverty. Natural disasters have also crippled Venezuela’s energy system, leaving many of the nation’s population without access to basic services, such as clean water or electricity. This has forced many to turn to crime as a means of survival, a trend which has resulted in an explosion of both petty and violent offences around the country. The rapidly degrading conditions have led to a majority of the population to turn against the government they once held in high regard, with the Maduro government currently holding disapproval rates as high as 80% according to data analysis firm, DatAnalysis. Many of the disgruntled population have turned to the streets to voice their concerns, calling for the immediate removal of President Maduro and his government. In response to this growing opposition, the Maduro administration has shifted its efforts to maintaining power and quashing dissent. This has been accomplished by increasing military funding to ensure loyalty in the event of an armed uprising, placing loyalists in judicial positions, and creating the National Constituent Assembly, a government body directly under Maduro’s control which has the power to rewrite the constitution.

This growing rift between the country’s political elite and the remainder of the populace has only aggravated the socioeconomic situation in Venezuela, with both Maduro’s government and his detractors increasingly viewing one another as enemies to be eliminated. Prisons have become an effective tool in the Venezuelan government’s struggle to maintain control, with the threat of imprisonment being employed to dissuade potential protesters from mobilizing. To reinforce this threat, prison conditions are purposely left to worsen, making incarceration an option very few are willing to risk. Despite this, large amounts of people continue to assemble in protest, which has led to intensifying crackdowns by government forces. This has resulted in a situation where violence is more commonly employed by protestors, who now view the police forces as an oppressive force. According to Nizar El Fakih, director the human rights organisation Priurus, as many protestors have been detained thus far in 2017 as there were criminals in the entirety of 2014. Sent to military courts loyal to Maduro, protestors are almost always condemned, their sentences holding lengthier terms than if convicted in a public court. This massive influx of detainees has pushed the prison system to its limits. Furthermore, the Maduro government has reportedly began imprisoning political rivals, further taxing an already overburdened system.

Economic conditions in Venezuela have contributed to a rise in violent crime across the country, further contributing to the degradation of conditions within prison facilities. The Venezuelan collapse has resulted in traditional authority structures – police, judicial, etc. – being redirected towards the protection of the government’s interests, rather than that of the population. Criminal elements, such as gangs and guerrilla militias, have filled the vacuum, employing violence to ensure control. In addition to this, many have turned to violent crime as a means of survival, which results in many deaths during robberies or muggings. This has resulted in Venezuela’s homicide rate rising to an astonishing 110 murders per 100 000 people, the highest outside of an active war zone, according to TIME. Police forces contribute to this, with those in the capital of Caracas being the most homicidal forces in the world – 3 800 deaths at their hands in 2015 according to TIME.

Those not killed by the police are sent to holding facilities known as calabozos after their arrest. Intended to hold prisoners before trial for a maximum of three days, these facilities at the present are facing triple occupancy with many held there for months or even years. Overcrowded to the point where there is little room to lay down, those incarcerated here face extreme rates of communicable disease, violence at the hands of other prisoners and guards, and the threat of starvation or dehydration. Transfer to prison facilities are impeded both by the two-day weeks of government workers, a precaution implemented to minimise energy consumption and the fact that these facilities are overcrowded themselves, holding nearly 52 000 prisoners in a system built for 20 000, according to Window to Liberty human rights group. However, even the possibility of departing to one of these prisons is tepid, with conditions in the prisons being not much better than those present in the calabozos. Rioting has become commonplace because of these terrible circumstances, and security forces waste no time violently suppressing these, the result frequently being massive prisoner fatalities.

The Maduro government has attempted to stall any means of improving the prisons of Venezuela, a “[…] massive violation of human rights,” as stated by Ramon Muchacho, mayor of the city Chacao. Jesus Gomez, an activist attempting to raise awareness on the growing problems within Venezuelan prisons, sees this as a purposeful move by the government a “[…] tactic to scare people into submission,” he claimed when speaking to TIME. As the situations within Venezuelan prisons worsen – some facilities are no longer controlled by security forces, the sheer number of incarcerated individuals making it an impossibility – the need for a solution becomes imperative. While many within the country view the ousting of Maduro as the only true solution, the international community can work with the existent government to assist in alleviating stress on the prison system, while helping to provide aid across the entirety of Venezuela. Many of the issues present within the prisons are merely concentrated versions of those occurring outside their walls; food and medicine shortages; gang and criminal violence; and dissatisfaction with the authorities. As such, forming solutions to any of these issues, whether within or without the prison system, creates a launching point to disseminate aid elsewhere. While the Maduro government may be unable or unwilling to participate fully in these endeavours, the provisioning of international aid, through both the contribution of supplies and support personnel, may be welcomed by the overburdened regime. Not only would an international presence help in improving the situation for both the incarcerated and impoverished, but it may lead to a mollification of tensions in the country and the prevention of more intensive, armed conflict.

Venezuelan prisons are microcosms of the wider situation within the country. The struggles experienced by those within their walls are not confined alongside them, endured as well by their free compatriots. In acknowledging this, the international community can better help the Venezuelan people, both helping to bring stability to their nation-in-crisis and preventing further human suffering.