Quico says: "The problem," my friend told me, "is that the National Guardsmen don't really control the jail. I mean, they control the door, yes, but once inside, the prisoners are pretty much on their own."
This was a few years back, as my journo friend was telling me of all the craziness she'd witnessed on a reporting visit to a Venezuelan prison.
Venezuelan jails, in her account, are dominated by the day-by-day Hobbesian struggle for survival: places where extreme violence is simply routine, rehabilitation non-existent, and the morale (and morals) of prison guards have collapsed catastrophically.
"Sometimes, on paydays," my friend explained, relating some inmates' statements, "the guards get drunk and taunt the prisoners for fun, waving pieces of fried chicken in front of them after going days without feeding them. They'd eat the chicken and then toss the bones in, letting them scramble over the scraps. We even heard stories that sometimes the guards grab their shotguns and take target practice on them, randomly shooting into the prisoners' area in an alcoholic stupor."
Of course, National Guardsmen are never prosecuted for inmates' deaths - it's enough to say they had to use violence to put down a riot to get them off the hook, any hook.
Food is a major problem for Venezuelan inmates. The prison my friend went to didn't have enough money to feed them every day: meals were served on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The rest of the time, they had to rely on family members bringing stuff in from the outside. But most prisoners are poor, many desperately so, and a good number of them just didn't have anyone they could rely on for deliveries. For them, the choice was simple: steal or starve.
Which is certainly a major reason why extreme violence is so prevalent inside. Prisoners have to join strong, feared prison gangs simply to keep themselves fed.
But getting food inside was just the beginning of the problem. Once there, they still had to cook it, but the areas where inmates live just aren't equipped with kitchens. Electric hotpots are one solution, but when dozens of them get plugged in to a system that's not designed for such loads, the result is predictable: they kept tripping up the circuit breakers, shutting down power for the entire prison.
At that point, inmates would be forced to look for anything that would burn to make a cooking fire, and before too long they'd made their way through all the wood inside the place and had to start stripping out the tar weather-proofing from the jail's roof to use as fuel. Result? Whenever it rained, the prison took in water like a sieve.
Not, of course, that leaky roofs are anywhere near the top of inmate's concern list. Last year, 498 of the nation's 21,000 inmates were murdered in jail, and another 1,023 injured with knives or guns. That's one death for every 42 prisoners each year, and a one in 20 chance of serious injury.
Hearing these stories, I remember thinking that bringing Venezuelan jails up to Gitmo standards would represent a dramatic improvement for inmates' human rights.
Given the conditions inmates face, it's hardly surprising that their families and leading prisoners' rights NGOs are desperate for an improvement. So inmates' families have had to resort to ever more creative, ever more extreme ways of pressing the authorities for improvements.
The most eye-catching is the "self-hostage taking" (autosecuestro), where family members turn up during visiting hours and then refuse to leave the jail until certain conditions are met. That people would voluntarily subject themselves to the insane conditions inside Venezuelan jails speaks, to me, absolute volumes about the sheer scale of their desperation.
You'd think that anyobody half-way sane would come to a similar conclusion. But not, of course, Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín who prefers to just blow the whole thing off as an imperialist plot, put on by US lackeys to cover up the revolution's "great strides."
See? It's magic! You just invoke the words "US imperialism" and any intractable social problem just vanishes in a puff of logic! It's no wonder these guys are so into it...