On the Inside: Venezuelan Prisons Under Inmate Control
In Venezuelan prisons inmates have control. Vista Hermosa is one country´s most notorious prisons and Wilmito is the Pran, the unquestioned leader who control a chaos of drugs, violence and protitution from inside the prison.
Vista Hermosa is one of the Venezuelas most notorious prisons. It was built in the 1950s to house 650 inmates, it now houses more than triple that number. As the violence plaguing the country, the prison population grew and clashes between prisoners and guards became common. Rather than improve conditions, prison authorities have allowed them to descend into near chaos. Since the Pran of the prison, the inmate Wilmito, and his gang took control of Vista Hermosa by force in 2005, drug use and violence are still widespread but tightly controlled. Outside its walls, the Venezuelan National Guard, the mylitary forces created by Hugo Chavez, patrols; inside, the inmates live and die in a world of their own making. In Venezuelan prisons inmates have control, the country have 34 prions but just 7 are controlled by the government, the rest are under the inmates rules.
Wilmito, who is serving sentences of 10 years for kidnapping and 16 years for murder, believes that his rule over the almost 2.000 inmates of Vista Hermosa (Beautiful View) in the southern state of Bolívar is more humane than that of the Venezuelan prison authorities, who have been widely criticized by human-rights groups for the overcrowding, poor living conditions and corruption in the countrys prisons.
Gang violence is rampant; in 2012, 591 inmates were killed in the country and the number increased during 2013, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons. Since Hugo Chavez take the Presidency of the country, more than 5000 inmates have been killed inside the venezuelan prisons, a number wich exceeds the sum of dead prisoners in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia together.
Entering Vista Hermosa feels a bit like stepping into the streets of a bustling slum. There are open-air vendors selling DVDs, medicine and snacks amid the unbearable heat and thumping techno music. There are plazas for dancing and a more formal ballroom for parties. In these areas, visiting women and children walk freely, the iron bars have been removed and the walls are freshly painted. The prison, like any society, has distinct subcultures. There are Christian evangelists, called varones, who live, pray and sing together and work hard to keep their spaces clean. Gay inmates have their own quarters, where they can live without fear of harassment.
Vista Hermosa feels like an extreme version of Venezuela itself, in microcosm. Along with the families and celebrations, there is violence and despair. Dozens of addicts, their bodies withered by crack and other drugs, smoke and sleep in rows of hammocks or on piles of trash. Men serving time for sex crimes live in an area far removed from the other inmates. And this society of prisoners has a prison of its own the zone known as La Guerrilla, where gandules, the renegade inmates who have violated Vista Hermosa unwritten code, are kept under armed guard. Their inmate-jailers make surveillance rounds night and day armed with pistols, high-caliber revolvers and automatic rifles.
Prisons like Vista Hermosa, which Wilmito says generates about $3 million a year in profit from illegal activities and weekly taxes paid to the Pran by the inmates, could not function without the complicity of corrupt officials who allow drugs and weapons inside. Even the Pran fears them. As Wilmito puts it, “The arms are for protecting us from the National Guard.”