Animation Series Highlights Life in Venezuela Prisons

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A seven episode animated series on Youtube offers an inside look at the violence and intrigue inside a Venezuelan prison.

The series, “Jail or Hell,” was created and produced by Luidig Ochoa, a former inmate at Tocoron penitentiary some 100 kilometers outside of Caracas. After he was released from prison, Ochoa worked at several TV stations and the Ministry of Culture, before reportedly quitting to devote himself full time to his animation project.

The seven episodes, each between six to 10 minutes long, follow the story of a prison boss (or “pran”) who is driven out of power by a group of rivals.

Each episode depicts different facets of prison life. The inmates are shown wearing civilian clothing or are shirtless, living in primitive facilities with cockroaches and graffiti decorating the walls. Knife battles and gun fights are a frequent occurrence.

The pranes are depicted as enjoying privileges far above those available to the ordinary inmates, including private rooms decorated with pornography (convenient for conjugal visits), Blackberry cell phones, and the fear and respect of those around them.

According to watchdog group the Venezuela Prison Observatory, 506 people were killed in Venezuela’s prisons last year, while at least 304 inmates have died during the first half of 2012. The government only controls six out of Venezuela’s 36 prisons, the NGO has said.

InSight Crime Analysis

“Jail or Hell” doesn’t do much to humanize depictions of inmates. Tellingly, many of the characters are drawn with red, slitted eyes, as though to estrange the characters from the audience. The depiction of women in the series — all tight clothes and exaggerated curves — draws on the cheesiest anime cliches.

Nevertheless the series is an intriguing depiction of how authority in the prison system works. The National Guard are only shown entering the prison grounds in order to do head counts. While gun battles rage inside the prison walls, the guards stand on a hill outside and observe. The series never bothers to show the clean up of the dozens of dead bodies that pile up, all of them oozing puddles of blood.

There are only a few moments that hint at life outside the prison system. At one point, an inmate’s interior monologue notes that he has been held in pre-trial detention for five months and is still waiting to hear back from the Ministry of Justice. This misuse of pre-trial detention is one reason why Venezuela’s prisons are so overcrowded and deadly.

In the first episode (watch below), one character explains in a flashback that he was imprisoned for killing the son of a powerful political authority with his taxi. It is one of the few times that the series makes references to some of the broader injustices in Venezuelan society that have helped make the prison system what it is today.

But the show’s real value may come from how willing it is to show prison violence as random and ready to erupt at any time. One character in the second episode is gunned down after he is mistaken for another inmate, suspected of spying on a pran who was having wild, graphic sex with a female visitor. Others are killed for less random reasons, usually involving rivalries between the prison bosses. The implicit message seems to be that if “Prison or Hell” is so willing to show life as disposable and cheap, it may simply be reflecting society’s overall view of the populations most vulnerable to ending up in these brink and mortar infernos.

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