Club 18-Life: The Venezuelan Prison That Is Run Like A Holiday Camp

On the outside, guards circle the perimeter, but on the inside, San Antonio prison on Margarita Island in Venezuela is all fun, sun and sex...
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Let's get this out of the way first. The Shawshank Redemption is a stone cold classic. Even though it barely made back its production budget when released in cinemas, it didn't take too long to become a universally loved favourite. But even classics can be prone to cliché, and Shawshank is no exception.

There's the wrongly convicted man, psychopathic guards, strip-search induction, weepy new fish, a corrupt warden, maggoty food and a kindly old-timer. It's like a lag's greatest hits compilation. Plus, of course, there's all the touching scenes of male bonding, as well as plenty more scenes of male touching. If you believe the movies, there are two guarantees when it comes to prison life - manicure kits covered in cake frosting, and more aggressive man-on-man action than one of Michael Barrymore's pool parties.

So far, so predictable. Surely there's another side to life in the lock-up, besides the rapey inmates and socks full of snooker balls? According to a new report in the New York Times, in Latin America at least, penal reform means leaving the lunatics to run the asylum. San Antonio prison on Margarita Island in Venezuela might be surrounded with sharpshooters in watchtowers, but inside it's more like Club 18-30, just with fewer tattoos.

At least you don't have to put up with a Thomas Cook rep trying to sell you eight hours on a catamaran, with a complimentary pork chop at lunchtime.

Outdoor pools, conjugal visits, Playboy murals and even a cockfighting arena - it's no wonder the island's many holiday makers are sure to include a day-trip to San Antonio as part of their itinerary. The one-way security checks are a big bonus: walk in empty-handed, and waltz out a few hours later laden with enough crack to keep Whitney Houston hitting the high-notes for a fortnight.

Under the benevolent leadership of Teófilo Rodríguez, inmates and their guests enjoy barbecues and whisky by the pool, plus cable TV and air-conditioning in their cells. Kids are welcome too, and there's an onsite photographer who can Photoshop you and your family into a variety of backgrounds. OK, so most of the prisoners are armed, either with AK-47s and M-16s, or BlackBerries for scheduling those all-important drug deals, kidnappings and murders. But at least you don't have to put up with a Thomas Cook rep trying to sell you eight hours on a catamaran, with a complimentary pork chop at lunchtime.

Forget about rehabilitation and reform, this is just a package holiday where the package happens to be wrapped in clingfilm and muled through the security checkpoint. And even if you do have to dodge the occasional grenade attack whilst visiting the infirmary, it still beats the shit out of Magaluf.

What the inmates say...

“I find it hard to explain what life is like in here,” said Nadezhda Klinaeva, 32, a Russian serving a drug trafficking sentence in the women’s annex. “This is the strangest place I’ve ever been.”

“There’s more security in here than out on the street,” said Mr. Rodríguez, a thick-necked long-termer who barks orders into a cellphone.

“The Venezuelan prisoners here run the show, and that makes life inside a bit easier for us all,” said Fernando Acosta, 58, a Mexican pilot jailed since 2007.

“I was in the army for 10 years, I’ve played with guns all my life,” said Paul Makin, 33, a Briton arrested here in Porlamar for cocaine smuggling in 2009. “I’ve seen some guns in here that I’ve never seen before. AK-47s, AR-15s, M-16s, Magnums, Colts, Uzis, Ingrams. You name them, it’s in here.”

“Our prison is a model institution,” said Iván Peñalver, 33, a convicted murderer who preaches at the prison’s evangelical Christian church.

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