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Grand Escapes and Crumbling Walls: Inside Latin America’s Prisons

In late January, a violent prison riot broke out in Venezuela’s Uribana prison, killing over 60 inmates and guards. The riot broke out when guards and state authorities attempted to confiscate prisoners’ stockpiles of contraband – primarily weapons – and the prisoners revolted in protest. Recent events in Venezuela are but one example of a regionally pervasive concern : overcrowded and violent prisons.

Just last year alone, 591 people were killed in prison violence across Venezuela. Venezuelan prisons are a place where inmates casually sport assault weapons, maintain “candy and cocaine stands,” bring prostitutes into prison facilities, and stage knife fights in grotesque Coliseum-style settings for pure entertainment. Immense overcrowding means that prisons will typically house a population three times their capacity. Venezuelan inmates are twenty times more likely than their free countrymen to be murdered in prison than on the street – even in spite of a recent uptick in murder rates across the country.

This is, in large part, due to the fact that Venezuela’s prisons are largely run by gangs; chaos and anarchy reign within the crumbling walls. But, Venezuela’s prisons, while generally more violent than those of its neighbors, are not unique in their corruptive character.

Chaos and anarchy in Latin America

Latin American prisons, while generally not as violent as Venezuela’s, still remain exceptionally unruly. For example, in February 2012 a Honduran prison fire killed over 350 people. A riot in a Mexican prison, just a few days before the Honduran fire, left 44 dead and raised concerns about gang activity and violence in prisons. Escapes of 100 or more inmates are not uncommon.

Part of the reason for this phenomenon is the growth of overall crime in the region, including organized drug crime, assaults, murders, and rapes, which have led to a publicly supported government crackdown pushing for detain-and-punish tactics – often with arrests being prioritized over prosecution. Anywhere between 50 to 70% of inmates in a typical Latin American prison ave not been tried or sentenced.

This is just a small, brief picture of the chaos that rules over Latin and South American prisons. Miserable conditions, often stemming from overcrowding and a severe lack of public funding, create space for criminal activity both within prison walls and following the eventual release of hardened, dangerous criminals.

La Mano dura

Central America, in particular, has been home to exploding rates of violence in recent years. In response, governments like Guatemala’s have pledged to use the mano dura – or “hard fist” – tactics against criminals in an effort to cut back on crime. Guatemala has built new prisons and expanded facilities – and yet still suffers from rampant overcrowding, corruption, and lawlessness within prison walls.

Most prisons in Latin America can be labelled as in crisis or emergency modes, with underfunded and overworked governments able to do little to combat conditions that threaten both inmates’ basic human rights and the good of society at large. Mano dura tactics have done little to qualm the chaos.

The particular problem of Venezuela

It must be noted that Venezuela has a much lower overall prison population than many of its other South and Latin American neighbours.  In light of what was said earlier with respect to violence in Venezuelan prisons, it must be asked why then is it that Venezuelan prisons are particularly violent? As mentioned earlier, 591 people were killed in incidences of violence in Venezuelan prisons in 2012 – a staggeringly large number.

Why this is the case remains a mystery. Venezuela theoretically has more financial resources to combat terrible prison conditions, but instead chooses not to. Part of this may be a problem of rhetoric: anti-Western and anti-elitist forces have, some think, habituated the public to the idea of a necessary evil. This idea may hold some merit. Cuba, which employs similar rhetoric, has a prison rate that soars over the rest of the region: there are 510 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens, compared to Brazil’s 276, Mexico’s 207, or even El Salvador’s 425.

Other possibilities for Venezuela’s particularly high rate of violence include structural problems that plague prisons across the region: corruption, unsuccessful mano dura policies, and high crime rates. However, one definitive step that the government can take is symbolic: instead of continuously blaming its critics, it should turn its focus inwards.

 – Molly Korab


(Featured photo: AttributionShare Alike Matito. Creative Commons, Flickr)

About mkorab

Student of international development and political science at McGill University. Molly joined the Bouillon to connect with Montreal’s thriving intellectual community and further pursue her interest in writing about mass incarceration and civil liberties. She hopes to become a journalist, and aims to one day live up to the title of muckraker.

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