A foolhardy visit to a Venezuelan prison
September 2011—I wanted to get inside a prison to see what it was really like. “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky in The House of the Dead. Hubris aside, getting inside a penitentiary would allow me to say I’d done it and tick another he-man foreign correspondent box. It would satiate my curiosity, my desire for new experiences and, ultimately, my young, naïve and gung-ho nature. It would also give me a better understanding of Venezuela.
Venezuela’s prisons, as I’d seen at El Rodeo, were infamous for ease of access to weapons and drugs, as well as mobile phones and computers hooked up to the internet, allowing inmates contact with the outside world, often to run further criminal enterprises. The country's thirty-four prisons housed nearly fifty thousand people, but were built for under a third of that. Several hundred died each year in riots and gang fights like the one at El Rodeo I’d recently covered.
There are essentially three ways to get into a prison as a reporter. Authorities may invite you in, though this usually means you’re not going to see anything worthwhile. Some journalists will pay prison gangs to let you in, though giving money to criminals, or indeed any source, is highly unethical. Finally, you can pretend you’re visiting a friend inside and hope for the best. I went for the latter.
I emailed Maria Eugenia Diaz to see if she could help. She’d helped get Simon Romero into a prison a few months earlier on the island of Margarita for a much-lauded New York Times story. The front page piece described something reminiscent of what I’d seen in La Paz, if not even more luxurious. The Margarita prison housed a swimming pool, restaurants, and bars.
Simon’s piece was good, featuring strong, on-the-record quotes, and fascinating description. But I wanted something more raw. I’d surely be able to get it published somewhere, especially in the wake of a big New York Times piece. Editors at other news outlets had a sad habit of wanting to emulate the Times, I had learned.
Within a few hours of my email, Maria Eugenia wrote back with a plan. The following Saturday, she instructed, I should line up outside La Planta, a prison in the east of Caracas, and wait to be allowed in with all the other visitors. Once inside, I should ask for a name given to us by a local rights group. The inmate would know of my visit and show me around. “Let me know how it goes,” she wrote. “It is never easy, but worse would be not to try.”
Andy was somewhat cautious, though skillful at not stomping on my enthusiasm. He’d seen my type before, in countless young journalists and perhaps also in the mirror years earlier. He knew what danger I could get myself into and what it would mean for him. “I don't want to come back to face a ‘‘Reuters reporter jailed for illegal entry to La Planta' issue!” He kept his caution light when we spoke on the phone; he’d take the story. A Reuters driver, Carlos, would accompany me and wait for me outside. He’d be in touch with Jackson, and Andy himself.
On Saturday, Carlos picked me up at 6.30 am. La Planta was only twenty minutes east of Sebucán, where I lived, in a lower middle-class neighborhood called, somewhat ironically, El Paraiso, or Paradise. It wouldn’t open until 8 am but there was already a long line of visitors to get in. Carlos wished me well. I didn’t know what to expect inside at all.
It wasn’t until 11.30 am that I was anywhere near the front of the line. Just inside the crumbling building, a guard took, and held, my passport and stamped my arms four times with the number, “106.” I wondered why four times. He didn’t ask any questions and waved me through. I looked up to see a whiteboard showing that the prison currently held 2,436 inmates. I had read beforehand that it had been built for 350. Another guard frisked me and indicated that I keep walking. On the walls, I saw graffiti, and at some point, the guards stopped and the inmates began. I looked one inmate up and down. He wore a white vest, pale blue trousers, and a pair of worn black trainers. I immediately noticed that he held a pistol in his right hand, finger on the trigger, and he didn’t smile as I caught his eye. What was this? This was an inmate and he was armed—and there would be no enforcement of any law that could help me here.
But then I looked up. I saw that everyone in this room was armed. And pistols were the least of it. The inmates menacingly wielded machine guns, rifles, and grenades. The weapons weren’t relaxedly slung over their shoulders or resting against walls, but all in hand, fingers on triggers.
My heart was racing. I hadn’t seen this sort of weaponry since my university days in the Officers’ Training Corps, a British Army reserves unit. We were comfortable firing, stripping, and cleaning the standard British Army SA80 rifle. However, no one dared let their weapon rest or inadvertently point at someone, even when unloaded, lest they receive a sergeant’s reprimand, often consisting of screaming and push-ups. That was a controlled, disciplined, and well-trained environment. La Planta wasn’t.
I looked behind me toward the entrance. I was in over my head. This was too dangerous. Forget the story. I thought about my mom; this was what I’d promised her I wouldn’t do. Everyone around me knew they would face no consequence whatsoever if they kidnapped or killed me. Yes, it would look bad and there may be a token investigation, but it wouldn’t lead to anything, and the British government’s statement would make it clear that my own idiocy was to blame. I wanted to leave, but it dawned on me that the guards had told me I couldn’t leave for another couple of hours. Prison hours weren’t flexible. I looked straight ahead down a corridor, back straight and shoulders back, and walked through the inmates, trying to hide my racing nerves amid unfriendly stares and weapons on display all around me.
I walked and a door appeared to my right. On it was a small crucifix. I pushed the door and found a makeshift chapel, a refuge. My heartbeat slowed. I did not believe in God, but had always been fascinated by religion. At university one year, I had gone to a bible study group with a Christian friend. I appreciated the good faith discussions and the people were always very friendly. That friendship was what I needed right now. I walked in and took a deep breath. My heart was slowing; I refocused on the story, not just my escape.
Once my breathing regulated, I walked back out, along with someone I’d met inside, to find Maria Eugenia’s contact. We walked through a huge hall, dark and packed with men and women dancing. A cloud of marijuana bounced along with the bass line from a stack of six-foot high speakers in the corner, its smell infused with that of urine. This was a makeshift nightclub and the women looked to be a mixture of wives, girlfriends, and prostitutes. Through the darkness, noise, and the bustling crowd, I saw that all the men here were as heavily armed as those at the entrance. Some tossed grenades up and down or sharpened knives, perhaps trying to look cool like a teenager in a bar with a cocktail.
We found a door out of the nightclub and onto a yard where a group of men played soccer on a small pitch. I asked someone standing nearby if they knew the name I’d been given, and he pointed to the referee. I’d wait. One player held a pistol as he went in for a tackle.
When I introduced myself after their scrimmage, the referee wasn’t as pleased to see me as I had hoped. He wanted to eat, so I watched him do that, patiently waiting and looking around—though not too much. When he was done, I asked a few questions. The barrier between us wasn’t language. He simply didn’t want to talk.
A man in red walked by and stopped to chat. He spoke perfect English, with an American accent, and seemed happy to talk. He told me he was American and that the money he “stole” was actually his, but refused to go into detail about the charges against him and precisely how long he’d been in La Planta.
He had clearly settled and spoke Spanish with ease, if not a gringo accent. “If the guards mess with us, we shoot them,” he told me. “Someone dies in here every day. I’ve seen a man have his head cut off and people play football with it.” His words were corroborated in a non-boastful way by others around him—and later by social media videos and human rights groups. It wasn’t a pretty place. Ironically, though, I was feeling more comfortable now that I was with someone who seemed keen to speak with me. He and his friends showed me around a little, pointing to rats scurrying around on the ground where they slept.
We shook hands when the tour was done, but sadly I’d have to wait nearly an hour before I could leave. As I did so, I thought about the other visitors around me. They seemed at ease and perhaps even used to this. Were they not shocked? I guess this was their normal.
I told Carlos what I’d seen on our drive back. The story was writing itself, though there was nothing particularly deep in it. Andy was pleased, both at the story and that he hadn’t had to deal with a “Reuters reporter jailed” issue. I’d sell it to Reuters and GlobalPost for $250 each. Five hundred dollars wasn’t bad but perhaps wasn’t quite enough. I wouldn’t be going back for more. I’d planned to find a way to shoot video or at least photos of what I’d seen, but I decided it wasn’t worthwhile. What had I really added to humanity’s understanding of Venezuela and its prisons? Everyone knew they were bad and filled with weapons. I wasn’t the first person to show that. It had been a fascinating personal experience, but was there any real revelation here? Did there have to be to make journalism valuable? I didn’t have the answers, or even the wherewithal to articulate these questions at the time. For the moment, I’d done little more than satiate my own ego, and had put myself in considerable danger to do so.