An apparent lack of food and water for inmates is responsible for a prison riot that took place at a Llanos Penitentiary in the western city of Guanare. The riot left more than 40 people dead and 50 injured according to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (VPO). Casualties included the prison warden, who was stabbed and a national guard officer, who was injured in a grenade explosion.
The Guardian reports that the unrest started on Friday 1st of May when an inmate protest broke out over being denied food packages that are delivered by relatives. A confrontation between guards and inmates then turned violent, quickly turning into a full-blown riot. The VPO agrees with this version of events. However, Al Jazeera reports that “the country’s prisons minister, Iris Varela, told local newspaper Ultimas Noticias on Friday that the incident resulted from an escape attempt”. Varela continued on to claim that prisoners had attacked guards and prison staff outside the prison compound. The VPO has called for an investigation, casting doubt on the official report that the prisoners had attempted a jail-break from Llanos Penitentiary.
The VPO claims the Guanare prison was built to hold 750 inmates but is jammed beyond capacity with 2,500 inmates. Coronavirus quarantine measures may mean that inmates cannot receive food brought by relatives. A large portion of the prison population in Venezuela regularly depend on this food to supplement stringent prison rationing. The BBC reports that riots and unrest in the overcrowded prisons of Latin America have been increasing as governments introduce containment measures to help slow the coronavirus outbreak. As of the time of writing Venezuela has 335 coronavirus cases and 10 deaths due to COVID-19.
Al Jazeera asserts that the country has approximately 30 prisons and 500 jails that can hold an estimated 110,000 inmates, however, the true number of inmates is expected to far exceed that. The VPO and other human rights officials say the prisons are violent and badly overcrowded, with gangs that traffic weapons and drugs being largely unchallenged.
In addition to the Coronavirus pandemic, Venezuela is facing a months-long political crisis with rival politicians claiming the right to lead the country. The crisis has led to widespread poverty and migration of millions of people from Venezuela into neighbouring countries. The situation continues to contribute to the poor living conditions in the country’s correctional facilities. A similar incident occurred last year in a nearby jail in the same state. That riot, although not to do with supplies, left 29 people dead.
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