"They can go home on parole," Venezuela’s Penitentiary Services Minister Iris Varela announced upon releasing 19 female inmates. Belkys Flores (51) confessed that she never thought that her daughter and she would be on the list.
On July 22, the bright sun warmed the faces of the women of the National Institute of Female Orientation (INOF), a prison located in Los Teques, Miranda state, in northern Venezuela and about 30 minutes from Caracas. In pink uniforms and facemasks, the inmates paraded like a military brigade and sang the national anthem to welcome prison authorities in the open yard.
On that day, some areas of the prison were due to be disinfected with calcium hypochlorite as a preventative measure against the COVID-19 pandemic, but the situation changed dramatically when the minister announced that some inmates were to be released.
The supervised parole system, which involves regular obligatory check-ins at a local police station, is a ministry measure for those who suffer delays in criminal processing and those who have served the majority of their sentence or have shown exemplary behaviour.
Tears began running down the inmates’ faces, and, without breaking ranks, loud applause turned into embraces.
The faces and hands of some of the 551 women who are held in the prison but who were not in the courtyard, poking through the square holes of the neighbouring buildings, celebrated as if it were their own release.
Nothing to take
"When you are released, you have nothing, no money, no clothes, nothing. Despite being 10 years behind bars, you have almost no belonging to take with you. I grabbed the stuffed animals and slippers I had made, packed with my daughter the little I had in a bag, and we went out. We just wanted to be free again," Flores added.
At the end of the steep path coming out of the prison, Belkys stumbled upon the main avenue full of vehicles and felt as if her body was going to give way.
"My hands, my legs, my whole body trembled. I felt like my heart was going to burst out of my chest when I saw the cars, I felt like I was going to faint. I was very afraid when I crossed the street," she said.
The 51-year-old woman said that nothing compares to being released. "Nothing is like being free. However, coming out in the middle of the pandemic is very strange, it is very scary that now that you are out you run the risk of getting infected with something that can kill you. I don't know how to explain it: it's like immense happiness combined with fear. Both of us, my daughter and I, feel like we are lost in a desert."
10 years less
Flores and her daughter Ninoska Suarez (32) won their release through good conduct and had their sentence cut in half. Both were arrested in 2011 and sentenced to 20 years for drug trafficking.
In the police bust, her son-in-law and husband were also arrested and are being held in other prisons.
"They're still in jail and I have no way of communicating with them because when the new prison system started, we had phones taken away from us and no other way of communicating," she said.
Varela implemented a new prison system in 2011, which, among other things, looks to sew discipline in prisons. It also promotes activities that allow inmates to learn a trade that they can practice when released.
"I learned to sew almost all kinds of garments. I was also in charge of volleyball competitions. It has been beneficial to be under this new regime, although being imprisoned is something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. My family disintegrated and that's what hurt me the most," she added.
In March, when the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Venezuela, prisons stopped receiving family visits. Flores argues that although the inmates are aware that this is best for their health, it is very hard because they lose contact with reality and their relatives.
Magda Gibelli is the Sputnik correspondent in Caracas, Venezuela.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.