Venezuelan prisons are notorious for their brutality and poor living conditions. Disease outbreaks are a frequent occurrence due to overcrowding and poor hygiene, and many prisoners fall victim to the corruption of the system.
There are roughly 25,000 prisoners in Venezuela, but the facilities are designed to hold 15,000.This means like prisons such as Sabaneta are severely over-crowded, and the perfect breeding ground for diseases such as cholera, which once wiped out around 700 prisoners at Sabaneta prison. In Sabaneta specifically, there are roughly 3,700 inmates housed in a facility designed for no more than 700.
The corrupt system which operates the prison offers preferential treatment to the inmates with money and power. Those who have neither, which is the majority of the prison population, are forced to sleep in corridors in hammocks, as their cells have been given to someone with more funding.
There are no set daily activities in La Sabaneta prison, and the inmates are left to their own devices. This often descends into chaotic violence, and many human rights experts claim that this behaviour is directly linked to the lack of mental stimulation, alongside living in cramped, unclean conditions.
There is roughly one guard per 150 inmates, which allows the inmates to basically run free around the facility. Weapons such as shivs/shanks are made continuously by the prisoners, and stabbings are a common occurrence.
In January 1994 at around 10am a fire broke out in Sabaneta prison. Many surviving inmates claim that there were two gangs at war inside the facility, and it was one of those gangs who set the fire upon their enemies. As the inmates struggled to get out of the flaming building, the rival group shot and killed any who managed to escape. A total of 108 prisoners were killed that day, and the guards did not intervene.
The Human Rights Watch claim that their sources inside the prison suspect the prison staff and National Guard purposefully delayed their interaction during the battle, in an attempt to facilitate the massacre. However, the group add: “Whether purposeful or simply negligent, the official failure to act constituted a breach of Venezuela’s obligation under international and domestic law to protect prisoners’ rights, most importantly, their right to life.”
Two members of the National Guard were tried before a military court for their actions, or lack of them in this case, as were the 52 prisons who were implicated in the killings.
In September 2013, a violent fight broke out between two rival gangs in La Sabaneta prison. During this fight, a total of 15 inmates were killed, leaving dismembered and headless bodies lying around the prison grounds. The Director of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, Humberto Prado, said this latest incident made Sabaneta “the most violent jail in the country, with 69 people killed behind its bars so far this year. ”
A security sweep of the prison took place several days after the fight broke out, and uncovered over a hundred weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Alongside the armoury which was found in the inmates’ possession, guards also located tunnels under the prison where drugs such as cannabis and cocaine were being stored.
Specific items found:
- 22,767 rounds of ammunition
- 105 firearms
- 92 home-made stab weapons
- 75 knives
- 5 grenades
- 2 mortars
- Tear gas canisters
- 12kg of drugs
- 135 mobile phones
Whilst the authorities argue that those responsible for smuggling such weapons and drugs into the prison will be punished, La Sabaneta continues to be a fine example of the Venezuelan prison system and the lack of control the security forces have over their inmates.