By Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera
CARACAS (Reuters) – The arrival of coronavirus in Venezuela is fueling concerns the disease could spread like a fast-moving fire through the country’s notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary prisons.
Venezuela’s inmate population swelled during a decade-long surge in crime, overwhelming prisons and leading many police stations to convert temporary holding cells into ersatz jails where the accused can spend months or years awaiting trial.
Venezuelan detention centers frequently lack bathrooms, people sleep on floors, and many inmates spend their days without shirts or shoes on, in part to combat the infernal heat of windowless facilities, according to Reuters witnesses and former prisoners.
Human Rights Watch in a report this year said the country’s prisons are plagued by corruption, inadequate security and overcrowding.
Family members of some 110,000 inmates now worry about how the government of President Nicolas Maduro will control coronavirus in a crisis-racked nation where even hospitals often lack running water, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.
“The worry is that there’s contamination in there: people are sick; there’s even tuberculosis,” said Beatriz, whose brother is in prison for robbery.
Like others contacted, she offered only her first name and asked that the prison not be identified. Those who have publicly complained about the conditions of imprisoned family members say prison authorities take reprisals against the inmates.
She and other family members contacted by Reuters said visiting rights had been suspended to prevent the spread of the virus, but that it was not evident how prisons would prevent their own staff from transmitting the disease.
TUBERCULOSIS AND SCABIES
While restricting visits could reduce exposure to the virus, it can also limit prisoners’ access to food because most inmates depend on family members to provide the bulk of their meals.
Venezuela’s information ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
“We have not yet heard any authority figure express concern for people in Venezuela who are imprisoned,” said Carlos Nieto of non-profit group A Window to Liberty, which focuses on the rights of prisoners.
The group reported 224 cases of tuberculosis among inmates in 2019, 22 of which were fatal.
That suggests many prisoners may suffer from the sort of respiratory illnesses that make people more susceptible to severe complications from coronavirus, rather than simple flu-like symptoms that comprise the majority of cases of COVID-19.
A Window to Liberty last year said it recorded 494 cases of scabies in Venezuela’s prison population. The itching skin infestation thrives in environments with inadequate hygiene.
The group estimates that 40% of the country’s inmates are still awaiting trial. Most of those are confined in police station cell blocks that are meant to hold people for 48 hours while they are processed by the judicial system.
A 2018 fire in a police cell block in the city of Valencia killed 68 people, including two visitors, spurring a United Nations call for an investigation into the incident.
“They don’t take them to see a doctor or anything like that unless they’ve got a court order,” said Sara, who said her son is awaiting trial in a Caracas cell block on accusations of theft that she says are false.
She said another inmate in the same cell block suffered a foot infection so severe he could barely walk, and that police were slow to get him treatment.
“There are always infections in there.”
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Tom Brown)