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Tuberculosis and malnutrition, the pandemic of Venezuelan prisons

Venezuelan inmates are affected by diseases that threaten their lives due to lack of medical care, overcrowding, and little access to food. Español

Saharí Gómez
5 August 2020
Saharí Gómez, El Diario

Lying down is a luxury for people deprived of liberty in Venezuela’s preventive and criminal detention centers. Overcrowding forces inmates to take turns sleeping and even walking. Takin in some sun is not an option either. But there is a problem that, along with overcrowding, is affecting the health of detainees: malnutrition and tuberculosis.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons has reported on cases of inmates who have been infected with tuberculosis inside Venezuelan prisons, along with a high rate of malnutrition accentuated during the quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic that places the prison population in a situation of greater vulnerability to any disease.

Since 1999, 7,270 prisoners have died in Venezuelan jails, according to figures from the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons. 104 inmates have died so far in 2020, 66 of them from malnutrition and tuberculosis.

Why is there an outbreak of malnutrition in prisons?

The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that tuberculosis in prisons can represent up to 25% of a country’s total cases. It points out that “the transmission of tuberculosis is favored by late diagnosis, inappropriate treatment, overcrowding, poor ventilation, and frequent transfers.”

The organization also highlights other risk factors that increase the vulnerability of those deprived of liberty to this disease. Malnutrition is one of them, as well as other pathologies such as HIV and the use of psychotropic substances.

Malnutrition and tuberculosis have become the pandemic of Venezuelan prisons, as stated by Carlos Nieto Palma, Coordinator General of the NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad and human rights defender.

“For the first time in the history of Venezuelan prisons, we are seeing prisoners die from diseases such as tuberculosis and malnutrition,” Carlos Nieto Palma, Una Ventana a la Libertad

According to the NGO’s records, until 2015 the main cause of death in prisons was fighting between prisoners. However, the situation has changed with the exacerbation of the prison crisis.

When the compulsory quarantine was decreed in Venezuela due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, family visits to detention centers were suspended. This measure directly affected the inmates because the only food they used to receive was provided by their relatives.

Carlos Nieto Palma explains that “malnutrition has greatly intensified during this stage of the pandemic because relatives are not allowed to bring food to the prisoners, worsening the situation of the whole prison population.”

He denounces that whenever the relatives can bring food to the inmates, they have to leave the food at the gate, but it never reaches the prisoners since, according to Nieto Palma, the custodians keep it.

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Saharí Gómez, El Diario

The situation is desperate for the whole family. We see that not only is the right of the detainee being violated, but also the rights of the relatives,” Carolina Girón, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons.

Health at risk

The Ministry of Penitentiary Services has a budget destined for feeding the convicts. However, Carolina Girón, director of the Venezuela Observatory of Prisons, affirms that the food does not reach the penitentiary centers.

“If we have to be clear about anything, it is that the vast majority of our prison population are low-income people, and the country’s situation, inflation, and high cost of food determines the amount of food that a person can bring to a loved one behind bars,” Girón explained.

Girón highlighted that during 2019, 73.46% of all deaths in Venezuelan prisons were due to malnutrition or tuberculosis and these numbers have increased during the quarantine. The director of the NGO explained that in the Tocuyito prison, Carabobo state, 11 people have died from malnutrition between May and late June, of which five died from tuberculosis.

On June 28, 41-year-old Yorman Alcides Sequera Fuentes, who was confined in El Libertador Training Center, also known as Fénix Center, in the state of Carabobo, allegedly died of tuberculosis and sepsis at the Dr. Enrique Tejera Hospital City. His family had not been able to see him since February.

“The quarantine prevented us from seeing him. On several occasions, we approached the prison to bring him clothes and food, but they did not let us in. On Monday, June 22, my mother was told that he was sick and we spent two days at the prison’s doors to try to find out more about his condition, but they never told us that he was in such bad shape. When she got to the hospital she could not recognize him, he was too skinny, practically skin and bones. I could not talk to him because he could no longer speak, and within a few minutes he died, ”said Betsaida Pineda, sister of the deceased.

The precarious conditions of the prisons promote the outbreaks of diseases, not only tuberculosis and malnutrition but also HIV, scabies, conjunctivitis, among other conditions that are not timely addressed. Added to this is overcrowding in prisons and preventive detention centers, estimated at 120% and 400% of the facilities’ capacity, respectively, according to figures from the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons.

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Saharí Gómez, El Diario

Police dungeons are the most affected by overcrowding since they are designed to be transitory detention centers, with a maximum detention time of 48 hours. However, detainees can spend up to three years in these places.

“Generally, a large command post will have the capacity to house 80 or 100 inmates, and we are seeing some centers with capacity for 20 people house 250,” he says.

Inadequate medical care

Carlos Nieto Palma comments that medical service in Venezuelan prisons is of no benefit. He points out that the NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad has carried out medical care programs in several prisons, but they are unable to cover the entire prison population.

Medical care in prisons is incomplete because there is no 24 hours availability of medical staff, explains Carolina Girón.

“Treatment always consists of a ‘magic pill’ that is given to everyone, whether their ears hurt or they have an infection, for example. There is no medical and health care service. Many prisons that do not even have a nurse to administer these treatments,” says the director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons. She emphasizes that it is the same inmates who empirically treat any nutritional or health problem.

The situation worsens when inmates fall sick and need to be transferred to a health center, a process that is delayed as much as possible. “They take the patients to the hospital when they are already in very bad condition. They die on the floors of hospitals because there are no stretchers or anything else,“ explains Girón.

In the case of tuberculosis, Girón explains that disease is prevalent in overcrowded places, and stresses that it is an easy pathology to cure if proper treatment is followed. Before the ban on visits to prisons and pre-trial detention centers, family members used to be compelled to provide the medicines to treat the disease, a situation that has been hampered by the pandemic.

The Right to Communication

The director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons denounced that, in addition to the precariousness faced by prisons and preventive detention centers, the lack of communication has become a problem during the pandemic.

“The relatives have no communication with their loved ones and vice versa, nor can they visit them, which in Girón’s opinion constitutes a violation of human rights.

The situation is desperate for the whole family. We see that not only is the right of the detainee being violated, but also the rights of the relatives,” Carolina Girón, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons.

The situation in Venezuelan prisons has been in decline. The precariousness inside the prisons rapidly intensifies as we go through the quarantine, while the human rights of the deprived of liberty and their families are violated. The prison crisis, poor health conditions, and the inaction of the prison system put their lives at risk.

Translated by: José Rafael Medina.


This piece was originally published in El Diario

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