CARACAS, Venezuela - If one were looking for hell on Earth, the Reten de Catia prison would not be a bad place to start.
A vile stench cloaks the prison, where inmates wander amid scattered garbage, many of them half-naked. This is a place where the toilets seldom work, where water is scarce and soap is not provided. The world within is violent and anarchic, and the arsenal of weapons is so vast that guards stay clear of some areas.
"It's unimaginable. It's a lot worse than any movie you've seen," said Manuel Portero, a citizen of Spain held on drug charges in a crowded basement cell.
Flash points for violence
As crime rises in Latin America, frighteningly overcrowded prisons have become flash points for violence and human-rights violations.
Across the region, prison systems have broken down and are jammed to many times their capacity. Bloody prison riots are recurrent, and protests ever more macabre. In Mexico and Bolivia, prisoners recently sewed their mouths shut, and inmates at a Salvadoran prison declared a "death lottery" to demand better conditions.
La Victoria prison in the Dominican Republic holds nearly 5,000 prisoners, five times its capacity. Brazil's prisons are bursting, and Peru's Yanomayo prison is so high in the Andes that the hands of inmates - among them accused American guerrilla sympathizer Lori Berenson - appear permanently cut and swollen.
Tupac Amaru rebels who seized the Japanese ambassador's
residence in Lima, Peru, have denounced "inhuman conditions" in Peruvian prisons and demanded the release of hundreds of their sympathizers.
Some prisons off-limits
Panama's notorious Modelo prison grew so crowded and revolting that it became a national embarrassment. When film director Oliver Stone - who wrote the movie "Midnight Express" about a hellish Turkish prison - visited Modelo in 1993 to scout film locations, he cut his visit short in horror. Declaring that "the only thing to do with the place is to blow it up," President Ernesto Perez Balladares presided over its recent demolition.
Some prisons are simply off-limits to reporters. Authorities in El Salvador have denied requests for visits for at least two months. In Cuba, no independent monitors have been allowed to verify reports of squalor, arbitrary incarcerations and physical and psychological abuse since the late 1980s.
There are some exceptions to the horrid conditions. In nations such as Costa Rica and Uruguay, humane treatment of prisoners is the norm. And even where conditions are harsh, Latin prison life has some humanitarian aspects: Inmates can receive frequent family visits and move freely within compounds.
The glaring gap between rich and poor is also evidenced in the prison systems. Those with the cash to bribe guards enjoy such creature comforts as spacious cells and private television sets. The vast majority of inmates are poor, however, and prison life for them is a daily battle for survival.
A walking tour of Reten de Catia demonstrates that vividly.
Set beside a Caracas expressway, the 30-year-old prison reeks of urine. Built to hold 700 inmates, it was housing 1,758 during a late November visit. Inmates seated on stairwells or in halls don't budge for fear of losing their place.
"There are 65 of us down here," said Portero, who spoke from a stairwell crowded with fellow inmates. "Each inmate gets two steps to sleep on."
Prisoners receive virtually no services from wardens except limited quantities of food - if gruel can be considered that.
Even water is not assured for inmates at Reten de Catia. Water service is irregular, depending on the cell block. Those on lower floors can get water out of the few spigots, but raw sewage often cascades on them from the upper floors.
Survival has its price
Survival is dependent on a perverse corruption that requires inmates to pay other inmates or guards for virtually everything. What an inmate can afford - including protection to avoid rape and stabbings - is often the key to whether he emerges alive.
The corruption among guards, coupled with the relatively lax visiting privileges in many prison systems, means that money, weapons and controlled substances pass freely among inmates.
Reten de Catia prison director Irving Betancourt Coello defended his efforts to improve conditions and limit corruption. But he noted that as long as guards earn only $65 a month, little will change.
"Without economic resources, forget it; even the pope couldn't do anything here," he said.
Pope tried to help
In fact, Pope John Paul II tried. During a stop at the prison in a February visit to Venezuela, he appealed to authorities to treat prisoners with greater dignity.
The severe overcrowding and squalid conditions often combine to trigger deadly unrest. Prison riots in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico this year claimed scores of lives and generated grisly television footage that fueled charges of human-rights violations.
"Roughly once a week, there's a prison revolt here," said James Cavallaro, the head of the Brazilian office of Human Rights Watch/Americas.
A macabre "death lottery" to execute four inmates was announced in July by prisoners at the Santa Ana prison in western El Salvador, where inmates are so tightly packed they are forced to sleep in shifts. The prisoners eventually backed down after President Armando Calderon Sol dared them to go ahead.
"Self-mutilation is the kind of thing prisoners do to draw attention when there's absolutely nothing else they can do," said Joanne Mariner, the prison expert at the headquarters of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Experts say the dire problems in Latin American prisons expose some of the fault lines in the democracies of the region.
Judicial and penal systems are underfinanced, some nations use prisons to stash their "undesirable" citizens, and the public is often so outraged by rising crime that it takes a certain satisfaction in sending accused crooks to festering hellholes.
Moreover, the Napoleonic legal system in Latin America generally keeps accused criminals in prison until trial. That can take a year, or several.
"In all of Latin America, an average of 50 percent of the prison population has never been convicted of any crime," said Eugenio Zaffaroni, an Argentine penal expert.
Mariner, of Human Rights Watch, said the court backlogs have created a new underclass in Latin America's democracies. "The disfavored groups are not the leftists anymore," she said. "The people who are getting their rights trampled are those accused of crimes."