by Jen Turner
Venezuelan authorities finished removing inmates from one of the country’s biggest prisons last week, after more than two days of gunfights and rioting that left 61 people dead and more than 100 injured. The killings were believed to have been sparked by an attempt to confiscate illegal weapons at the notoriously overcrowded Uribana jail. According to local media reports, the search had been planned for dawn on Friday at the prison complex in the western city of Barquisimeto, but the heavily-armed inmates resisted, sparking one of the deadliest riots in the country’s history. After two days of sporadic shooting and reports of killings by inmates, the authorities declared the prison’s closure. The government has yet to confirm the full list of casualties.
Iris Varela, Venezuela’s penitentiary services minister, said the decision to search and disarm the men had been taken after authorities learned that rival gangs were preparing to confront each other in order to seize control of the facility. She said the element of surprise was lost, however, because reporters gave advance warning of the search. But civil rights activists said the inmates and their relatives had long anticipated the government’s plan. The deeper problem, they said, was that the authorities used a disproportionate amount of force in a prison that was already at breaking point.
Venezuela’s prison system is among the most violent and overcrowded in the world. Originally built for 12,000 inmates, the country’s 33 jails house nearly 47,000 people. Guns and knives are widespread, as is murder. NGOs and human rights watchdogs reported that 560 people were killed in prison in 2011. The Guardian reports that Uribana is one of the worst facilities, known for its weekly “coliseum” contests, where inmates fight scheduled battles as crowds of convicts cheer, jeer and film the bloodshed. For me, this raises interesting questions surrounding how inmates may deal with these tense living environments, and maintain their own personal security and well-being.
A 2009 Area paper by David Sibley and Bettina van Hoven focuses on research carried out with inmates in dormitories in a prison in New Mexico, USA, talking about their every day lives. This research engages with how prisoners think about space; highlighting a central concern surrounding how they think about definitions of personal space in an environment where boundaries are weak. The paper focuses on anxieties about contamination which serve to define real and imaginary spaces within the prison. In light of these recent violent riots, Sibley and van Hoven’s paper may shed light on how prison inmates may adapt to the material spaces of the prison and to the daily routines – particularly in order to avoid dangerous liaisons. Inmates have to “learn to make space for themselves” (p.201). This may involve making decisions about where to be at particular times, or even who to look at. As Sibley and van Hoven explain:
staying safe and avoiding trouble … requires sending the right signals to others, but also inmates suggest that it is important to create a personal space, making use of a minimum of artefacts and considerable imagination. In this process of securing a space in a densely packed dormitory, vision is important in the sense that looking at others and being looked at contribute to the formation of interpersonal relations. An inmate may spend time looking at others in order to establish who it is safe to associate with, whereas being looked at might be interpreted as a threat to the sanctity of personal space.
This paper raises questions surrounding the understanding of space-power relationships in institutional settings. For many people interested in developing efficient penal systems, maintaining proper surveillance is the key to eradicating problems within prisons. Jeremy Bentham’s early Panopticon prison design aimed to allow prisoners to be in complete view of prison officials in the hope that it would discourage inappropriate behaviour. However, what Sibley and van Hoven illustrate is, that beyond carving out ‘dark spaces’ where activity may take place out of view of prison officers, the significance of ‘contamination’ by other inmates is crucial – and in the case of Uribana jail: fatal. Nevertheless, this research also notes that, in spite of everything, inmates were able to make their own spaces - material and imagined; and for me, these types of ethnographic study are crucial to our understanding of the space-power relationships in prisons.
David Sibley and Bettina van Hoven, 2009, The contamination of personal space: boundary construction in a prison environment, Area, 41 (1), 198-206.
Virginia Lopez in Caracas and Jonathan Watts, Venezuela shuts Uribana prison as riot death toll rises, The Guardian, 27 Jan 2013.