A prisoners rights' group says about a quarter of inmate deaths in Venezuela's police holding cells in 2019 were due to tuberculosis and other treatable illnesses, revealing the deadly risk this population now faces from coronavirus.
About 170 prisoners died in pre-trial detention centers, or cells in police stations throughout Venezuela that are largely overcrowded, according to the 2019 annual report by Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Liberty - UVL), a non-governmental organization focused on prisoners' rights.
Of these deaths, 46 were of treatable diseases, including 22 who died of tuberculosis, an infection of the lungs. Violence was the second most common cause of death.
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The spread of disease in the jails is hastened by poor sanitary conditions, severe overcrowding, and the mixing of sick and healthy individuals, UVL reported. The group also found high levels of malnutrition among inmates. Of some 6,000 inmates held in the 239 detention centers included in the report, over 1,100 had reportedly been sick in 2019.
Now, inmates could be at even higher risk from coronavirus.
On March 14, Venezuelan authorities suspended family visits at police holding cells and subsequently, at prisons. The problem is that family members customarily provide food, water and medicines to their loved ones in the country's jails.
Carolina Girón, Director of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones - OVP), said that inmates are provided a single meal a day, and that it consists of pasta water, some cooked grains or an arepa (a type of maize bread).
As of April 5, Venezuela had officially registered 159 cases of coronavirus and seven deaths. But with other countries in the region registering far more cases, including about 1,500 confirmed cases in Colombia and 3,600 in Ecuador, the situation in Venezuela may be far worse.
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Massive delays in moving inmates has essentially led to a parallel prison system within Venezuela's police station holding cells, which are supposed to hold individuals for no more than 48 hours.
In addition to being unsanitary and overcrowded, the jails lack ventilation, access to sunlight, potable water and trash collection, all of which can further the spread of infectious diseases.
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Despite having suspended family visits due to the coronavirus pandemic, authorities at some pre-trial detention facilities are reportedly allowing families to bring in food, water and medicine, according to El Pitazo. This enhances the likelihood of contamination.
As of late March, the Venezuelan government had not provided any directives on how to tackle coronavirus outbreaks in the country's prisons. Carlos Nieto Palma, the general coordinator of UVL, said prison officials are likely unprepared.
“If they have not cared for those suffering from tuberculosis, despite there being mechanisms to do so, I do not think they will do anything if they are hit by the coronavirus,” he told news organization El Pitazo.