Venezuela’s overwhelmed justice system leaves women spending months in cramped, overcrowded detention centre cells. Photographer Ana María Arévalo Gosen is shining a light on their lives.
Scores of women squeezed on mattresses on a dilapidated cell floor. Cells lit with a single bulb. Women caring for children in squalid conditions with little food and water.
These are the scenes depicted in Venezuelan photographer Ana María Arévalo Gosen’s award-winning photo series Eternal Days. Each picture is a glimpse into Venezuela’s and El Salvador’s prison systems, where an overwhelmed justice system leaves thousands of women awaiting trial to spend months – sometimes years – in cramped, overcrowded cells with scarce natural light, medical provision or water.
Arévalo Gosen, 34, began her project in 2017. Over the last four years, she’s visited 15 detentions centres and four prisons in Venezuela and El Salvador and is expanding her work to other South American countries to shine a light on how women are treated in their retrospective justice system.
Under Venezuelan law, women should only be held before trial for 45 days, however, various crises in the country mean that procedural delays have become the norm and the detention centres and prisons are ever more overcrowded. Arévalo Gosen explains that many of the women are serving anticipated convictions regardless of what crime they’ve committed or their culpability. The reasons for many of the detentions are drug-related, robbery or of a political nature.
In many prisons, women – including trans women and children – are not separated from men, and there is no separation between convicted criminals and people awaiting trial. Pregnant women live in prison with infections and a lack of medical care.
“Many of these women’s human rights have been violated,” Arévalo Gosen tells Stylist. “The detention centres are not places where you’re already declared guilty, but where you wait for trial. Many women don’t know their lawyers, they don’t have food, water or medical attention. They depend on their families on the outside to bring them food and water every day.”
Detention centres in particular lack the infrastructure and resources to hold so many people. “The women are completely abandoned,” says Arévalo Gosen. “They’re abandoned by the system and their families. These are dark places. There’s violence here, the cells are hot, many don’t have any natural light. It’s a place where you are deprived of everything.”
“One woman told me the system is creating parasites because they’re not learning anything or doing anything,” Arévalo Gosen adds. “That’s why my work is called Eternal Days because life here is repetitive. Nothing new happens. It creates a lot of emotional problems.”
Due to the various political and social crises happening in countries like Venezuela, Arévalo Gosen says the plight of the women in prisons goes overlooked. For many years Venezuela has been caught in growing political discontent exacerbated by hyperinflation, power cuts and food shortages. “People are suffering all sorts of problems, including lack of water and internet access, hunger and electricity outages,” says Arévalo Gosen. “People here are worried about survival so those in prison are overlooked.”
“People also have a very caricatured image of people in prison, which isn’t true,” says Arévalo Gosen. “Women in prisons usually come from lower-income families that didn’t have access to education. I found that many of these women were coerced by men to commit crimes and a lot have suffered the most horrific gender-based violence.”
Despite all the horror of the prisons, Arévalo Gosen’s photographs also capture the women’s tender and intense bonds. “These women understand that the survival of one is the survival of everyone,” says Arévalo Gosen. “They have close friendships. If you’re in a small box with 20 other women all day you talk, you tell your stories, you get to know each other lives.”
Ultimately, Arévalo Gosen has hope. “My work is about bringing hope that something can change. My mission is to build more infrastructure and change the law because the prison system doesn’t just affect these women, it affects our whole society.”
Images: Ana María Arevalo Gosen