Venezuela cell block overcrowding hits triple capacity, rights group warns

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's pretrial cell blocks in 2020 were overcrowded at a level amounting to triple their capacity, a rights group warned on Thursday, criticizing unsanitary conditions in the facilities due to underfunding in the crisis-stricken country.

Some 24,218 individuals were held at the South American country's 273 preventative detention centers - which hold detainees for up to 48 hours before they are released or placed in jail - which have the capacity to host just 7,457 people, according to Magaly Huggins, research coordinator at A Window to Freedom, which advocates for prisoners' rights.

"[The centers] are infected and contaminated," Huggins said in an online presentation, noting that many of the detention centers lack potable water, toilets, showers and on-site ambulances. "Many people have to relieve themselves in improvised latrines or in plastic bags."

Venezuela's chief prosecutor Tarek Saab on Thursday told the country's National Assembly that some 22,700 detainees were currently in pre-trial detention centers, and that the centers should provide frequent medical attention.

"We need to build new centers," Saab said.

Venezuela has long been among the most crime-stricken countries in Latin America, and conditions at its overcrowded and anarchic prisons have deteriorated in recent years due to an economic collapse that has starved the government of funds.

According to A Window to Freedom, 208 detainees died in pre-trial detention centers, many of them due to diseases like tuberculosis. The group also detected high levels of malnutrition among detainees, given that food and medicine are provided by their family members, not authorities.

Just three COVID-19 deaths were reported at the centers in 2020, Huggins said, though she said there was no testing for the novel coronavirus at the centers and that some deaths were listed as having been caused by respiratory issues, without further details.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by Luc Cohen, Editing by Alexandra Hudson)