Hunger-striking inmates die of poisoning in Venezuela

CARACAS (AFP) - As many as 25 Venezuelan hunger striking inmates have died, a rights group said Thursday, after they drank what prison authorities said was a cocktail of prescription drugs and grain alcohol.

Another 145 were being treated for poisoning after drinking the concoction, the government said. They too had been on hunger strike.

The prisoners at David Viloria Correction Centre in Venezuela's Lara state had been protesting since Tuesday over what they said were inhumane treatment and rights violations by prison officials.

The Prisons Ministry said inmates became violent on Wednesday night, broke into the infirmary and guzzled a cocktail they made of grain alcohol, drugs used to treat epilepsy as well as antibiotics and tranquilizers.

The bizarre case is the latest tragic episode in a country with one of the world's most violent and dangerous penal systems.

The Venezuelan Prisons Watch rights group said it had counted about 25 bodies in the morgue and questioned the version of events given by the government, which put the death toll at 13.

A ministry statement said the deaths and injuries stemmed from "uncontrolled ingestion" of the mix of grain alcohol and those medications.

The statement said inmates first broke down walls and doors of their holding area, and then violently made their way into the infirmary.

It wasn't immediately clear why hunger strikers would choose to imbibe an alcoholic drink, and the government offered no further explanation.

Venezuelan Prisons Watch said family members reported that prisoners became sick after drinking water delivered by authorities.

"Prisoners aren't so stupid as to take a medication without reading the label," the group's director, Humberto Prado, told AFP.

Prosecutors named a team of experts to probe the incident.

The prison had been holding 3,700 inmates, four times its capacity.

One prisoner's relative told AFP that inmates were regularly beaten during inspections, fed rotting food, limited to one visit a month, and held in overcrowded blocks where diseases like scabies were rampant.

After Wednesday's incident, the remaining inmates were rounded up and held naked in the prison yards, the relative said. It was not immediately possible to verify the claim.

OVERCROWDING, VIOLENCE

Venezuela's prison system is one of the most violent in the world. In the first half of this year, 150 inmates were killed in violent incidents, according to a recent report by Venezuelan Prisons Watch.

In 2013, the death toll was 506 prisoners, it said.

The main problems are overcrowding, dismal health conditions and malnourishment.

Starting in 2011, then president Hugo Chavez launched a program to improve living conditions, disarm prisoners and speed up the backlogged court system. His successor Nicolas Maduro has pressed ahead with the policy.

But in many cases jails are controlled by armed gangs involved in frequent fighting.

As of the end of June 2014, the prison population was more than 55,000, but penal facilities only have room for 19,000.

Sixty-five per cent of those in jail are still awaiting trial.

In a separate incident, a group of 41 inmates convicted of murder, kidnapping and robbery broke holes in the walls of their prison outside the capital Caracas overnight on Tuesday and escaped, prosecutors said in a statement.

A media report said the men in fact snuck out through a gap by the back door.