Crisis in Venezuela's judicial system support broken prison system, attorney says

Tragedy at 'calabozo' in Valencia highlights national trend of overcrowded jails

VALENCIA, Venezuela – Nereida Campos lives in a poor neighborhood in Valencia, Venezuela. Her home is walking distance from the cemetery where she recently buried both her son and cousin. They were likely both the victims of what human rights experts say is one of the worst judicial systems in Latin America. 

A violent crime wave has been overwhelming the system for years and the penitentiaries around the nation are boiling over. Campos said local police officers dragged her son out of her home, and fatally shot him -- no explanation given. Her cousin died in a calabozo, an overcrowded jail at a police station.

He was among the 66 inmates and two women in conjugal visits who died during a fiery riot March 28. Her frustration, she said, is only increasing, because Venezuelan journalists are not really investigating the incident and officials are not releasing details during their ongoing investigation. 

During a recent radio interview, Venezuela's attorney general Tarek William Saab said four prison guards were charged in connection with the fire that killed Campos' cousin. 

 "An exacerbated overcrowding exists in the police facilities," Saab said without providing a solution other than the possibility of more arrests in the case, as the investigation continues. 

Attorney Carlos Nieto said the plight of the Campos family is the norm. He said poverty in Venezuela nearly guarantees victimization through street violence, police corruption or overcrowded jails. Nieto is devoted to documenting the state of the country's prisons.

"There is no interest on the part of the government to provide any solutions," said Nieto, who runs A Window to Liberty, a non-governmental organization that has been reporting on violations of human rights in Venezuela since 1997. 

Nieto and Saab both agree that the government is dealing with overcrowded correctional facilities that are unable to absorb any new inmates. This situation has forced police officers to use unequipped detention centers to hold defendants. 

The detention center where Campos' cousin was being held had a capacity for 30 defendants, but police officers were housing 273 inmates. 

"These are spaces that are not apt for this type of use," Nieto said.  

The department of corrections has a capacity for 30,000 inmates, but they have an estimated prison population of 100,000. There have been reports of torture while in custody. 

Nieto is concerned about the inmates who are suffering from malnourishment. He says many are lacking basic rights needed to survive. It's a system that The Human Rights Watch warns places teens arrested for using social media to protest against the government in the same cell with adults arrested for non-political crimes.

With overcrowding, health safety and human dignity go out the window, Nieto said. The department of corrections has also been impacted by the medical and food crisis. Treating the mental health issues that characterize a recidivism also take a back seat.

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