The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Venezuela is a high-risk country —among other reasons— because of the collapse of the national health system and disproportionate prison overcrowding.
It is well known that although Maduro recently said “that the Venezuelan health system is prepared to face the pandemic,” the situation is complicated by the fact that the country has not published epidemiological statistics for several years, especially on the real situation of the country’s prisons, among so many other statistics that tend to be hidden by dictatorships.
Given the confirmation of the cases of COVID-19 in Venezuela and the high risk of contagion of the disease, various non-governmental organizations, and trade unions have expressed their concern about how the precarious conditions of overcrowding and lack of health care in prisons in the Chavista-controlled South American country could make prisons a breeding ground for the coronavirus and threaten lives of prisoners.
On Tuesday, the Venezuelan NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom) issued a statement urging government authorities and prisons and health officials in the country to provide immediate attention to the prison population. Venezuela has placed restrictions on family members’ visits to prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19, once the first cases were confirmed in the country.
The organization explicitly stated that “it is no secret that it is the family members who bear the responsibility and the cost of food and medicine for the prisoners since the state and the Venezuelan government have forgotten to comply with the most elementary and fundamental human rights of those deprived of their liberty.” Thus, the situation is further complicated with this pandemic.
“Currently, the prison population is about 19,091 inmates spread across several preventive detention centers designed to temporarily hold only 6,448 detainees. According to UVL monitoring of 238 jails in 15 states, there is 205% overcrowding. This has led to infectious diseases affecting at least 494 detainees- 44.8% of all reported illnesses. Moreover, 224 prisoners were ill with tuberculosis, and 22 died of the disease in 2019 alone.
Since 1997, A Window to Freedom has been promoting and defending human rights of persons deprived of their liberty in Venezuela through research, the creation of legislative proposals on prison matters, and the formulation of public policies that benefit the prison population and their families. In 2019, the NGO in its most recent report, based on the alerts, had already pointed out how the deaths of inmates in state custody are an inevitable consequence in many cases.
“Prison overcrowding is the main cause of the penitentiary crisis in Venezuela and also of all other violations of the fundamental rights of the inmates since it constitutes one of the primary health risks for the prison population.”
“Venezuelan state must conform to international human rights standards”
The Venezuelan Program for Education-Action in Human Rights (PROVEA) has called on the Venezuelan government to publish the epidemiological bulletins, which have not been available since 2016 so that the necessary public health measures can be taken per the magnitude and severity of the health problems facing the country due to the coronavirus.
It has also stressed that the state must adopt public health measures that comply with international human rights standards to avoid exacerbating the country’s humanitarian problems through arbitrary restrictions or using the pretext of these measures to abuse rights and freedoms.
Ante pandemia del coronavirus, Maduro debe gantizar atención a todas las poblaciones y comunidades vulnerables, en particular a las personas mayores, en cárceles, embarazadas o en condiciones de salud grave, y también a comunidades en extrema pobreza o en zonas de dificil acceso. pic.twitter.com/G0Fz4SFNGK
— PROVEA (@_Provea) March 17, 2020
Political prisoners are also at risk
On Monday, Gonzalo Himiob, vice-president of the Venezuelan Penal Forum, outlined the situation of the country’s detention centers, given the coronavirus pandemic that is already in Venezuelan territory. “With the crisis generated by the COVID-19 in Venezuela, the prison situation could reach truly Dantesque proportions.”
The lawyer described the situation in the detention centers as “precarious,” pointing out that these institutions have become “prisoner warehouses.” He also indicated that it is almost impossible to prevent inmates from having contact with each other since there is an overpopulation of more than 300% in these spaces.
He also detailed risk factors on Twitter of the 316 political prisoners that the NGO has registered to date. “Adding to the problem is the fact that in most of the detention centers, basic services (water, electricity, etc.) do not exist or are precarious. It is very difficult to maintain hygiene under these circumstances.”
He also pointed out that “the lack of timely and effective medical care for inmates in Venezuela is a serious problem, and solving it is an unresolved task. For example, the IACHR has issued precautionary measures to protect the health of the political prisoners of Ramo Verde that have not been complied with.
3) A esto debemos sumarle el grave hacinamiento que evidencian la mayoría de los centros de reclusión, que en algunos casos supera el 300%.
— Gonzalo Himiob S. (@HimiobSantome) March 15, 2020
Unsanitary environment for prisoners held without reason
Already on Saturday, with only two confirmed cases in the country -according to the statistics of the regime-, the president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation, Douglas León Natera, requested the release of political prisoners
“Prisoners without reason. What health conditions do they live in? Are they in good health? How will the virus affect them if this disease reaches a prison where they are?” the doctor asked in a statement to the press.
#CoronavirusVzla | Douglas León Natera, Pdte. de la FMV, hace un llamado urgente por los presos políticos: “Abran las cárceles y liberen a todos los que están sin ninguna razón allí”.
Casos como el de Marrero, Requesens y diputados: “Se encuentran confinados y en minusvalía”. pic.twitter.com/qPihGKjPrT
— Asamblea Nacional (@AsambleaVE) March 14, 2020