On the tourist island of Margarita, life is good. There is beautiful beaches, a well-stocked bar and the pool is sparkling. But it's here that the party's really started. And there's plenty for the kids to do as well. No, this is not another resort. In fact you have to commit a crime to stay for any length of time.
Welcome to San Antonio prison!


RICARDO (Translation):  I just happen to be in this prison, I am not from this country.


Ricardo is Argentinian. He is a boat captain and like many here was jailed for drug trafficking. He's agreed to be my guide. 

RICARDO (Translation):  I was surprised when I arrived in this prison because it is not like a prison. I found a restaurant - I found a barbecue place, with barbecued chicken. There are places to drink, I was really surprised. It is not like a jail.


I understand his surprise. As well as the pool, there's the boxing ring. Pop up kitchens. Food prepared with sharp knives and meat cleavers and plenty of ways to make money. The idea takes a bit of getting usedto, but I can see why Ricardo says, people actually want to be here.


RICARDO (Translation):  They want to come here on weekends because here we have a pool, we have places to relax and switch off.  It's not glamorous to say you are going to prison, but the people who come to visit are happy. They have peace of mind when they come because they know we are fine here.


This prisoner is having a family day.


PRISONER (Translation):  He is the uncle of one of my brothers.


REPORTER (Translation):  Really?


PRISONER (Translation):  Yes


REPORTER (Translation):  The whole family is here


PRISONER (Translation):  Yes. It's no mansion and we have no Jacuzzi, it's cramped but comfortable. We share everything.  So, we behave so that we can live together with our loved ones.


PRISONER 2 (Translation):  Come and see how we live.


REPORTER (Translation):  May I?


PRISONER 2 (Translation):  Yes, come in.


PRISONER 3 (Translation):  Try some?


REPORTER (Translation):  What is it?


PRISONER 3 (Translation):  Guarapa.


REPORTER (Translation):  No thank you.


PRISONER 3 (Translation):  If you are filming, you have to try, go on.


REPORTER (Translation):  You drink first.


Guarapita is a powerful drink made in the prison.


REPORTER (Translation):   Who is that? 


PRISONER 3 (Translation):  Enrique's son.


REPORTER (Translation):  Can I see the photo? Is he coming to see you today?


ENRIQUE (Translation):  No, he is coming tomorrow.


REPORTER (Translation):  Thank you.

PRISONER (Translation):  I'm very proud that my mum is visiting me, I have been here for three years and six months now.

REPORTER (Translation):  How many years do you have left?   

PRISONER (Translation):  About five.

HAIRDRESSER (Translation):  This has always been my job - being a hairdresser, and it is still my job now that I am in prison. It's been good for me - I even work with visitors.


REPORTER (Translation):  Who are your most frequent clients?

HAIRDRESSER (Translation):  The visitors.

REPORTER (Translation):  Women?


HAIRDRESSER (Translation):  Yes.


REPORTER (Translation):  You cut children's hair as well.


HAIRDRESSER (Translation):  Of course, it's no problem.


REPORTER (Translation):  Do you feel okay here in prison? 


HAIRDRESSER (Translation):  Yes, we are prisoners but we live well.

Visitors are allowed three days per week ..and anyone who wants can stay over the weekend.


REPORTER (Translation):  Is she your wife or your girlfriend?


PRISONER (Translation):  She is my friend.


REPORTER (Translation):  Friend. Okay.

PRISONER (Translation):  A friend who won't go away.


I join this family relaxing in the shade and learn that psychologist Karina Hum is visiting her daughter's boyfriend. She's writing a book based on the stories of prisoners.


KARINA HUM, PSYCHOLOGIST (Translation):  I know what prisons are like in Venezuela, and this is paradise - a surreal paradise. I have interviewed many people who don't want to get out. Even if they are freed, they don't want to go, they are safer here than anywhere else in the city.  You see guns, drugs, everything, but no one gives you any trouble. It's crazy.  But it has given prisoners a quality of life.


As I wander around, I constantly see this sign. It's the symbol of the prisoner who runs the prison, El Conejo, the Rabbit.  There are no prison guards to be seen and nothing happens here without his approval. He's known as a prane, a powerful jailed gangster. He was the one who said I could be here and film with my iPhone. These are some of his enforcers. . I know they carry concealed guns. Part of the deal for getting me into the prison was not to film any of the weapons here. 


PRISONER (Translation):  Is that camera yours?


REPORTER (Translation):  Yes.


Even the baseball team bears his logo. 


CARLOS NIETO PALMA (Translation):  The people who control all the prisons in Venezuela are the pranes and the prisoners. The government here does not control anything at all. 

Carlos Nieto Palma runs Window for Freedom, a non-government organisation that monitors the prisons. He's extremely critical of the Prisons Minister, Iris Varela. 

CARLOS NIETO PALMA (Translation):  The thing is, Iris Varela knows nothing about prisons and it is that lack of knowledge that has caused all this chaos. 

And this is Iris Varela. She's a popular minister in a controversial portfolio.


IRIS VARELA, PRISONS MINISTER (Translation):  So it's part of the package of surprises for the transformation of lives of prisoners in our homeland.


She says that despite the death of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's "revolution"  continues...


IRIS VARELA (Translation):  We are talking about the transformation of prisoners into new people. We are promoting a penitentiary revolution.


She's here at another prison for a special sports day... one of her initiatives.  I asked her about what  Carlos Nieto Palma calls "chaos" and anarchy in the jails.


REPORTER (Translation):  How many jails are under your control?

IRIS VARELA (Translation):  All of them. I don't think anarchy exists in penitentiary precincts any more.

Carlos wanted to show me a remarkable photo from the jail I was in - The minister and the Rabbit. 

CARLOS NIETO PALMA (Translation): Did you see the photo of the minister sitting on El Conejo's bed? That is enough to make you wonder, you can't be sure whether she is the minister or the wife who's visiting and spending the conjugal weekend with him.


REPORTER (Translation):  How did he become the boss of the prison?


CARLOS NIETO PALMA (Translation):  Well, he was a famous drug trafficker, when he arrived at the prison, everyone knew who he was. He got there and continued giving orders.


Back at San Antonio, the weekend party continues. In a country known for extreme violence in  jails, the government  is happy for scenes like this...  thanks to the Rabbit.


NEELIE PEREZ, UNIVERSITY OF CARACAS (Translation):  That makes it difficult for the government to take action to regain control without resorting to violence. That is why they have recognised them as figures of authority and thereby re-legitimised them.


It's clear that the Rabbit's tight control over the prison was solving a big problem for the government. But according to Professor Neelie Perez from the University of Caracas, this also means turning a blind eye to what criminals do best.


NEELIE PEREZ (Translation):  There is evidence that shoes that it is from within the prisons that crimes on the outside are organised. The Pranes employ kidnappers, they organise crimes with their mobiles, for instance. It's like a lie they are all aware of, everyone knows the situation but no  one confronts it.


As the sun goes down, I realise that many of the families aren't leaving, so I decide to organise a hammock for myself. 


REPORTER (Translation):  Good night.


It's a strange feeling waking up in a prison, with people sleeping everywhere. It's early in the morning now, all the prisoners were called to be counted at about 5am and late afternoon at about 4pm.  I didn't feel concerned being around all these men, I knew that the Rabbit's rule was absolute. If anyone gave me a hard time, they would have to answer to him. This man apparently stepped out of line. He told me he had been shot through the hands by the Rabbit's enforcers. 


PRISONER 4 (Translation):  I'm taking antibiotics.


REPORTER (Translation):  Do you think they are helping?

PRISONER 4 (Translation):  Yes.


REPORTER (Translation):  Is it better?


PRISONER 4 (Translation):  I can move all my fingers.


REPORTER (Translation):  You can move them fine?

PRISONER 4 (Translation):  There is no tendon damage


As the weekly cockfight begins, it's obvious that as long as you don't step out of line, life is sweet in the revolutionary prison.


ANJALI RAO:  Giovana Vitola doing some time in San Antonio prison. That's the first Dateline story filmed on an iPhone, amazing what you can do with that little piece of technology.


Reporter/Camera
GIOVANA VITOLA


Producer 
GEOFF PARISH

Fixers
MICHAEL HARKNESS
TULIO VIRGUEZ


Editors
DAVID POTTS
MICAH MCGOWN


Translations/Subtitling
HENAR PERALES


Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN

 

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