Newsweek | Like many villages in Venezuela, Tocorón is being crushed by a national economic crisis. The government blames the collapse of oil prices and companies allegedly trying to sabotage President Nicolás Maduro. Others, however, blame a dependence on oil and years of socialist-inspired policies by Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Either way, the country is now plagued by chronic shortages, rampant crime and waves of looting.
Yet the villagers of Tocorón are lucky. They have an ally in their desperate daily scramble for food: the local prison. This facility has all the products big cities don’t: sugar and shampoo, diapers and deodorant, toothpaste and toilet paper—all of it for sale in a bizarre black market behind bars, which has citizens—at least those who can afford it—trying to enter prison for food.
“Locals come here to do their shopping,” says Julio, an inmate at Tocorón, who like most inmates Newsweek interviewed asked only to be identified by his first name because of security reasons. “Sometimes we can’t even buy products because visitors always come first.”
Whereas most other prisons in Venezuela are on the verge of collapse, many inmates feel fortunate to have ended up in Tocorón. According to Carlos Nieto, the director of A Window to Liberty, a local nongovernmental organization, Venezuela’s prisons have close to 95,000 inmates—nine times more than the system can hold. The miserable conditions inmates face—poor sanitation, overpopulation and violence—have been exacerbated by the economic crisis. In some cases, inmates have been forced to eat stray dogs to avoid starvation.
Compared with such dire conditions, Tocorón seems like a country club. It has a gym, a pool, a nightclub, restaurants, small convenience stores and even a zoo. Sure, there’s violence, but there’s also plenty of food and no long lines. To pay for these amenities, the prison kingpin charges a monthly tax to every inmate: 1,500 bolivars—roughly 53 cents.