Number of Venezuelan inmates dead in mass overdose rises to 38, public demands answers

Mystery continues to surround the death of dozens of inmates in an overcrowded Venezuelan prison. The Caracas-based newspaper El Nacional reported Monday that the official number of inmates who died climbed to 38, with 90 being treated for acute intoxication.

The mass overdose happened sometime between Monday and Wednesday of last week, when inmates at the David Viloria prison in western Venezuela started a hunger strike demanding better conditions.

According to El Nacional, the sick inmates are being treated inside the penitentiary, not in a hospital, and the list of deceased was provided to family members only Sunday.

One of the mothers El Nacional spoke to said her son has not yet been transferred to a medical center: "I will not be at ease until he is moved. I spoke with him just once on the phone and I haven’t been able to see him because visits are not allowed.”

The last time the Ministry of Prison Service made a public statement about the issue was last Wednesday, putting then the number of deaths at 13 with 145 intoxicated.

Meanwhile, several rumors are circulating about how the horrific scene unfolded. The prevailing one seems to be that the inmates raided the prison infirmary and guzzled down a deadly mix of alcohol and drugs to call attention to the deplorable conditions they endure in the David Viloria prison.

The socialist government, however, has a different version.

William Ojeda of the ruling socialist party said Friday after visiting the jail that many of the intoxicated inmates were drug users suffering from withdrawal symptoms due to the prison's strict regimen of abstinence.

Prisoner rights activists have been skeptical of the official version. They say that as deplorable as Venezuela's jails are, no inmates would voluntarily end their lives or poison themselves.

“Thousands of inmates have died in Venezuelan prisons in recent years, including dozens in the Uribana prison since 2013,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “How many more need to die for the government of Venezuela to effectively address the crisis in its penitentiary system,” he said, as quoted by the organization's website on a Monday posting.

Despite several television appearances last week, and even as calls for a thorough investigation have come from Roman Catholic Church leaders in Venezuela and from the United Nations human rights agency, president Nicolas Maduro has yet comment on the incident.

The David Viloria prison is named for a guard who was one of 58 people killed at the facility last year during the second-deadliest prison riot in Venezuela's history. The facility, previously called La Uribana, was built to hold no more than 850 inmates but was believed to be holding around 3,000 when the latest disturbances broke out.

Last year, 506 inmates died in the country's jails, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, a nongovernmental watchdog group.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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