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Thirteen Venezuelan inmates die of 'drug poisoning'

Angel Zambrano, AFP | Families of fatally poisoned inmates protest

At least 13 Venezuelan inmates died this week after allegedly ingesting a cocktail of prescription drugs and grain alcohol, with a rights group putting the death toll higher and highlighting inhumane conditions in the nation’s prisons.

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The prisoners at a correction centre in the northwest state of Lara had started a hunger strike on Monday to protest against the appointment of a new prison director. The protest degenerated into a violent takeover of parts of the facility, including its infirmary, the government said.

In an “act of defiance” many prisoners guzzled a mix of antibiotics, tranquilisers, grain alcohol and other drugs, the Prisons Ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

The ministry confirmed that 13 inmates had died and another 145 were under medical supervision following the mass poisoning.

However, Venezuelan Prisons Watch, a non-governmental group, said that 21 people had died following the unusual incident at the David Viloria Correction Centre. The NGO has condemned rampant deadly violence in Venezuelan prisons.

The government said that President Nicolas Maduro had ordered prosecutors to launch a thorough investigation into the incident.

Prisons reform

“The events recorded have not broken the prison’s internal rules, violated human rights, or affected the care and control of its prison population,” the ministry said in its statement.

Maduro's hard-left government insists it has taken significant steps to reform Venezuela’s prison system, in line with initiatives launched by his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez.

According to Venezuelan Prisons Watch, overcrowding, dismal health conditions and malnourishment are still commonplace in the country’s detention centres.

The rights group said 150 inmates died in prison riots in the first half of this year.

The NGO told the EFE news agency that 506 inmates died in Venezuelan prisons last year, only a slight improvement on the two previous years.

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