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 jail where inmates wander amid scattered garbage, many of them half-naked. This is a place where food and water are scarce. The world within is violent and anarchic, the arsenal of weapons so vast that guards stay clear of some areas.
As crime rises in Latin America, frighteningly overcrowded prisons have become flash points for violence and human rights violations.
Across the region, prison systems 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 jail 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.
Prison conditions are among the issues cited by the Tupac Amaru rebels who seized the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru, and have been holding hostages for three weeks. The guerrillas have denounced prison conditions they consider "inhuman" and demanded the release of hundreds of their sympathizers.
There are some exceptions to the horrid conditions. In 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 mirrored in the prison systems: Those with the cash to bribe guards enjoy such 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 the urine of inmates who relieve themselves in the hallways. Built to hold 700 inmates, it housed 1,758 at the end of last year. Inmates seated in stairwells or in halls don't budge for fear of vTC losing their place.
"There are 65 of us down here," says Manuel Portero, a Spaniard held on drug charges, who was speaking from a stairwell crowded with inmates. "Each inmate gets two steps to sleep on."
Prisoners receive virtually no services from wardens except limited quantities of food. Twice a day, inmates arrive at the dining hall holding dirty plastic containers or their outstretched hands. The state budgets the equivalent of 78 cents a day per prisoner for food in Venezuela's 31 prisons, but some experts say part of the money is siphoned off.
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. Shakedowns are endless.
"You have to pay to make a phone call, to bathe, to have access to water, to go out in the patio, to go to court, to see the judge," says Liliana Ortega, a human rights lawyer.
"Paying to go to the infirmary when you are sick is a big source of corruption."
Inmates sometimes have to bribe guards for the handcuffs they need to attend their own court hearings or to buy light bulbs for their cells. The corruption among guards, coupled with the relatively lax visiting privileges in many jail systems, means that money, weapons and controlled substances pass rather freely among inmates.
Local drug cartels sell crack cocaine in the prison, introducing it through pulley systems that transfer packages from the street outside or between inmates locked in cell blocks.
Catia prison director Irving Betancourt Coello defended his efforts to improve conditions and limit corruption, noting that he had fired 30 guards in his eight months on the job. 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 says.
The severe overcrowding and squalid conditions often combine to trigger more violence. Jail riots in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico this year claimed scores of lives.
"Roughly once a week, there's a prison revolt here," says James Cavallaro, the head of the Brazilian office of Human Rights Watch/Americas. "It can be anything from taking a hostage to inmates barricading themselves in an area."
Experts say the dire problems in Latin 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 crooks to festering hellholes.
Moreover, the Napoleonic legal system in Latin America generally keeps accused criminals in jail until trial. That can take a year, or several.