Inmate deaths have doubled in Venezuela's jails during the coronavirus pandemic, a crisis that underscores how the country's anarchic prisons foment violence and spread disease.
Between March and August of 2020, 287 prisoners died in prisons and police holding cells, a jump from the 137 during the same time period in 2019, according to data InSight Crime has been collecting on inmate deaths in Venezuela. The data was based on figures from two Venezuela-based non-governmental prisoners' rights organizations, A Window to Liberty (Una Ventana a la Libertad – UVL) and the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP).
While Venezuela officials have not provided numbers on inmate deaths from coronavirus in prisons or case numbers, A Window to Liberty tallied 109 cases of coronavirus in police detention facilities in six states by early September, according to official numbers provided to the organization. That total is far below the number of cases reported from penitentiary systems in Peru and Colombia. These saw 12,294 and 2,592 cases respectively, in roughly the same time period, though both have larger prison populations than Venezuela.
The jump in the number of deaths in Venezuela's prisons can't be completely attributed to COVID-19; many inmates have died from other diseases or been killed in riots. But the arrival of the virus has clearly spurred already overcrowded, squalid prison conditions to deteriorate further, putting inmates health at risk, something which InSight Crime had warned about earlier this year.
Below, InSight Crime examines three key aspects of inmate fatalities during the pandemic.
1. More Deaths in Prisons Than in Police Stations
While inmate deaths in police holding cells have ticked up when compared to the same period last year, deaths in prisons have skyrocketed.
During the period covered by InSight Crime’s review, 162 inmates have died inside prisons, up from 34 in 2019. In police cells, 125 detainees have died, compared to 103 in 2019.
Nearly a third of the prisoner deaths came in May, when 47 inmates were shot dead, reportedly by members of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), at Los Llanos penitentiary in Portuguesa. Inmates had crowded the prison entrance in protest of a lack of food due to pandemic conditions, and some reportedly were trying to escape when soldiers opened fire.
Besides violence, majority of deaths in prisons were attributed to tuberculosis, malnutrition and curable diseases left untreated, Carlos Nieto Palma, coordinator for UVL, which campaigns for prisoners’ rights in Venezuela, told InSight Crime. Deaths from tuberculosis -- a bacterial infection that, like COVID-19, affects the lungs and is spread by coughing and sneezing -- jumped from eight to 51, according to InSight Crime data. Forty prisoners died from malnutrition and other preventable diseases, when only eight did last year.
In police holding cells, most prisoner deaths occurred when prisoners were allegedly attempting to escape. Designed to keep pre-trial detainees for up to 48 hours, police holding cells have become a parallel penitentiary system in Venezuela, holding thousands of people for long periods of time in overcrowded conditions.
Mass escape attempts from police stations amid growing anxiety over the disease have ended in bloodshed.
UVL and OVP recorded escape attempts from police stations in Venezuela every week of the pandemic, and InSight Crime counted 74 prisoners killed in jail breaks from police stations. UVL reported that 16 inmates reportedly died during an escape from one station in the state of Zulia.
“These deaths are clearly executions carried out by police against prisoners who have escaped from their cells,” said Nieto Palma.
2. Families Keep Their Loved Ones Alive
The sudden suspension of family visits left inmates unable to subsist, with a lack of food blamed for major riots.
“Families take care of prisoners in Venezuela. In both prisons and police stations, they are in charge of taking food or medicine when they’re sick. Authorities do absolutely nothing for this,” Nieto Palma said.
While the decision to suspend visits was correct to stop an outbreak, there was no protocol on how to carry it out, Carolina Girón, director of OVP, told InSight Crime.
"Since the State cannot provide enough water, food and sanitary products, relatives must be allowed to bring needed items to the entrance of the prison for the staff to deliver them to the right people,” Girón said.
Meanwhile, families who have managed to deliver food and other goods to the prisons have had to bribe guards, Girón said. Food often doesn't reach prisoners also. Inmates told Reuters after the massacre in Los Llanos prison that guards were stealing the little food that was making it behind bars.
“Inside the prison, you pay for everything, to live, to eat, to sleep, to drink water. Prisoners often have to pay twice, once to the guards, and once to the gang leaders inside prison,” Girón said.
3. Deaths Vary By Region
The prison riot in which 47 prisoners were shot and 75 others injured turned Los Llanos into the deadliest prison in Venezuela during the pandemic. Portuguesa state, where Los Llanos is located, only had one other death reported in state facilities, when an inmate at a juvenile detention center died at a hospital amid surgery after reporting severe stomach pain.
While it has no prisons, the state of Zulia tallied 45 inmate deaths in five police stations. The central police facility in San Carlos del Zulia accounted for most of these, with 20. Repeated attempts to capture 84 prisoners after a mass breakout from that police facility in March has left 18 prisoners dead. The escape was allegedly ordered by prison bosses after two inmates died of tuberculosis and nutrition.
The state of Lara saw 36 prisoners die, with 26 dying in prison of malnutrition and tuberculosis, while 10 died in police stations.
InSight Crime’s research suggests that when visits were suspended in prisons in April, deaths shot up across the country. It is unknown to what extent the coronavirus has spread inside Venezuelan prisons, but it is unlikely the government would have the means to stop outbreaks, though over 2,000 prisoners have already been released, and there have been attempts to disinfect prisons.
With no plans announced to resume visits by families and no announcements of more supplies for prisons, deaths are likely to continue to mount.
“A malnourished person is more likely to succumb to any disease," Girón said.