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Freed American Josh Holt describes Venezuelan prison 'horror,' emotional return home

The Mormon missionary was held for two years with his wife in a notorious prison after the Venezuelan government accused him of being a spy and stockpiling weapons.
/ Source: TODAY

A Mormon missionary who was held in one of Venezuela's most notorious prisons for two years described the harrowing conditions he and his wife faced before a diplomatic effort by the U.S. government brought them home last month.

Josh Holt and his Venezuelan wife, Thamara, were released on May 26 after spending two years at Helicoide Prison in Caracas, where many former inmates have reported torture and human rights abuses.

"At the very beginning, it was horrible,'' Holt told Hoda Kotb on TODAY Tuesday. "They put me in a cell that was no bigger than what a twin bed would be. It was super, super hot, so I was literally laying on the ground in my underwear, just sweating as cockroaches are crawling all over me.

"If you had to use the bathroom, you either had a bottle or a newspaper."

Thamara, who appeared on TODAY but does not speak English as a first language, was put in a small cell with 23 other women, Holt said.

"They actually started to put her fingers in pencil sharpeners to take off her nails, (and) they tried to scare her with Tasers,'' Holt said.

Holt had flown to Venezuela in 2016 to marry Thamara Caleno, a Mormon woman and Venezuelan citizen whom he had met online.

He was living in Venezuela temporarily while waiting for approval for her U.S. visa when the two were arrested shortly after their wedding.

Venezuelan law enforcement accused Holt of being a spy and alleged that he was stockpiling weapons in her family's apartment in Caracas. The U.S. State Department had urged Holt's release, saying he and his wife were being held on "questionable charges."

The 26-year-old Utah native was welcomed home by President Trump during a visit to the White House on the day of their release.

He also shared a lasting hug with his mother, Laurie, who had fought tirelessly to get the attention of U.S. lawmakers to secure his release.

"He was finally back in my arms,'' Laurie said tearfully on TODAY. "I didn't want to let him go."

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.