How do you spell
Christina Hoag walks the streets and visits the prisons of Venezuela.
Imagine walking down the street and being stopped by police. They arrest you and throw you into a cell, where you remain for five, possibly ten, years. Your crime: a police officer doesn’t like the way you look. Your defence: you have none. You have simply been deemed ‘suspicious’. This is a real situation in Venezuela, where 93 men and women are in prison for never having committed a crime, nor even being accused of committing one.
They are victims of the Vagrants Law, which, despite numerous protests that it blatantly violates the Venezuelan constitution and global human-rights conventions, is still in effect more than 50 years after it was implemented. This law is a glaring example of how the justice system works in this oil-rich South American nation. As any Venezuelan will tell you, there are two types of justice – one for those with money and one for those without. ‘If you have dark skin and you’re from the barrio, you go to jail and you’re forgotten,’ says Liliana Ortega, a lawyer who heads the human-rights organization COFAVIC.
The Vagrants Law was designed to keep ‘undesirables’ off the streets. Police can arrest anyone whose behaviour is considered criminally suspect. According to human-rights activists, street people, often mentally ill or alcoholic, are the traditional targets. The local US Embassy’s human-rights report states that police are known to threaten to arrest people under the law if they don’t obey an order. The law’s real crime is the penalty: a prison sentence of up to five years, which can be extended if a judge finds the person likely to commit a crime upon release. The Vagrants Law violates Venezuela’s own constitutional guarantee to due process, yet petitions to the Supreme Court to overturn it have failed. Concern for the rights of the poor is not a popular cause in Venezuela – it reaps neither political favour nor money.
Judges and police are notoriously corrupt. Both buying a case dismissal and bribing to avoid traffic fines are routine. Two judges were arrested last year – one was nabbed with bundles of bills stuffed in her underwear, and the other flung the damning money out the window as police entered. Neither saw a day in jail. Activists point out that physical appearance, social status and an address in a good suburb are often enough to guarantee bail, regardless of the severity of the alleged crime.
Defendants from the other end of the social spectrum do not get that chance, even if accused of committing a relatively light crime. With two-thirds of Venezuela’s population falling below the poverty line, this leads to overcrowded prisons. Joanne Mariner, head of Human Rights Watch’s Americas’ Prison Project, calls Venezuela’s prison system ‘one of the worst in Latin America... The violence is incredible.’ For example:
• Wagner Plaza was chatting with his mother during a visit at Caracas’ Catia jail last February. Before her horrified eyes, another inmate stabbed her 27-year-old son to death.
• At La Sabaneta prison in the western city of Maracaibo, at least 108 prisoners died in an inmate gun battle and fire in January 1994.
• Thirteen inmates died and 20 were wounded in a rival gang skirmish at La Pica jail in the eastern city of Maturin in March.
According to the Miami-based Women for Human Rights, 196 prisoners were killed and 624 wounded as a result of Venezuelan jailhouse violence in 1995. Gang warfare is nothing new in prisons, but in Venezuelan jails the battles involve all types of guns, including high-powered submachine guns and even hand grenades. Trafficking in arms, as well as drugs, is big business in the jails. It’s no secret that guards, who earn about $75 a month – low even by local standards – are routinely bribed to allow contraband through.
While many inmates cannot afford a gun, everyone must have a chuzo or knife, say prisoners in the Catia penitentiary. ‘Here you’ve just got to focus on staying alive,’ says an inmate. ‘You have to watch your back all the time. No-one’s your friend.’ Security guard Edicto Ortega (no relation to Liliana), who served 23 years for murder, says: ‘It’s the only way to survive – kill or be killed.’ He lost count of how many inmates he murdered during his sentence. ‘That’s why I’m alive today,’ he adds unequivocally.
By all accounts, violence largely results from the overcrowding. Venezuela has 31 penal institutions with a total capacity to house 15,500 prisoners. The current population is above 25,000. One of the worst is Catia, where 2,100 inmates are squeezed into a building designed for 700. Men sleep on the floor in hallways, in an open-air courtyard and in hammocks. Milk crates and wooden boards supported by buckets serve as beds. ‘Prisoners have a matter of a few square metres each,’ acknowledges Rafael Narvaez, President of the Venezuelan Congress’s Subcommission on Jail Overcrowding.
Overcrowding is blamed on a slothful and corrupt court system. Of the 25,000 inmates, 17,000 are still awaiting sentence. Suspects must wait an average of three years before their case comes before a judge. Inmates often serve more jail time before trial than the maximum sentence for their accused crime. Many institutions do not have up-to-date inmate lists and prisoner files are lost. Inmates are commonly not released on time because it takes days to locate them in the system.
Inmates rely a great deal on visits by relatives to provide what the state doesn’t. With no staff doctors, medicines are brought by relatives and in some cases donated. Prisoners with AIDS are left to die. Some family members launder clothes and provide extra food. Surprisingly, visits are unsupervised, whether in the prisoner’s cell or anywhere else in the jail.
Visiting days in Venezuelan prisons are communal, boisterous affairs. Inmates also enjoy weekly conjugal visits. For a price, guards also arrange for prostitutes who wait outside the jails on conjugal-visit day. Private quarters are not provided – prisoners and their partners have sexual relations in the cells. Human Rights Watch was startled to find men and women living in the Ciudad Bolivar jail. The Venezuelan attitude is one of everyday life within prison walls, rather than strict punishment. Sex is considered as much a part of life as the bribery you pay to get what you want. Inside as well as outside, money determines quality of life.
It is all very different from the US where there is much more emphasis placed on the control and management of prisoners’ daily lives. Visits are usually strictly monitored and take place in visitors’ halls, which helps security but at the cost of impersonality. In high-tech prisons guards remain behind glass, remote-controlling doors and observing cell blocks on closed-circuit TV.
Despite miserable conditions, the Venezuelan inmates’ biggest gripe is abuse by guards. Days after 34 men escaped from Catia, other prisoners said they were roused out of bed at 3.00am. Ordered to strip and stand against the wall, they were beaten with a peinilla, a blunt-edged type of sword that guards and police carry. Inmates charge that guards routinely steal their belongings and destroy items during searches.
Strangely, prisoners are loath to protest. Violence is directed against fellow inmates, not against the system or the guards – unlike the US, where inmates are well versed in their rights. ‘I think it’s an idiosyncrasy of Venezuelans,’ says Liliana Ortega. ‘We’re very passive.’
It may also have to do with the prisoners’ backgrounds. Slum-dwellers are well used to not having running water, and to sharing small quarters with extended family. Medicines and doctors are done without, the daily diet is carbohydrate-based and monotonous, and schooling comes second to wage-earning. Having been born poor, they expect to stay poor. ‘They’re very beaten down and isolated,’ remarked Father Matias Camunas, a barrio priest and ardent champion of prisoners’ rights.
That may be beginning to change. In an unusual show of solidarity, Catia prisoners staged a short-lived hunger strike in February to protest against vaginal searches of female visitors. The visitors sent a letter to Congressman Narvaez detailing the searches: stripping below the waist so guards can insert a gloved finger into vaginas and rectums – often using the same glove on several women. A month later, a metal detector was installed and women now simply unbuckle their pants. The issue on which the inmates protested – and the fact that officials took note – again points to the priority placed on family.
The Ministry of Justice is particularly proud of its one institution that does work – the women’s prison. Here there is no overcrowding, no violence, no broken infrastructure. All women work, either in prison support services or microbusinesses such as sewing and ceramics, and can attend basic education or secretarial classes. Children up to age four can live with their mothers and spend weekends with them after that – an arrangement that again emphasizes the system’s everyday-life approach. ‘I’m very strict, but I treat them with affection and understanding. Respect is very important, too,’ says Director Raiza Bastardo.
Progress is also being made with the men’s prisons, albeit in small doses. Infra-structure improvements have been made, buses bought to take prisoners to court, and education and training programs reactivated. The key, however, is funding. ‘The Ministry of Justice is the Cinderella of the Government,’ says Ortega.
The Ministry is finding help from outside sources. The European Community has donated $1 million, and the COFAVIC human-rights group holds training sessions for jail employees. However, there’s still a long way to go before the justice system can be considered either decent or fair. For Ortega it call Venezuela’s claim to democracy into doubt. She notes: ‘You can’t have a democracy without justice.’
Christina Hoag is a freelance journalist based in Caracas.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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