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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
CARACAS, Jun 17 2011 (IPS) - Venezuela’s prisons are considered to be among the most violent and dangerous in the world. But the country now has a new ministry specifically tasked with improving conditions in the penitentiaries and making them fit for inmates.
This week, the government of Hugo Chávez approved the creation of a Ministry for Comprehensive Prison Affairs, with the goal of developing more in-depth policies and providing decent conditions for inmates, Minister of Interior and Justice Tarek El Aissami said.
Just hours before El Aissami’s announcement Wednesday, it was reported that 23 prisoners had been killed Sunday and Monday, and a further 80 injured, in the worst prison gun battle to have taken place so far this year.
Rival gangs vying for control of El Rodeo Uno, one of the prisons located east of the metropolitan area of Caracas, were involved in the bloodbath.
While the interior and justice minister announced the creation of the new ministry, three more prisoners were killed in a firefight in the Maracaibo prison, 500 km west of Caracas.
“The initiative of creating a ministry for prison affairs is unprecedented, and shows the importance attached by the state to the problem and to the task of humanising the prison system, which is part of our commitment to society,” El Aissami said.
The minister for the new portfolio will probably be appointed in a few days’ time, when Chávez returns from Havana where he is recovering from surgery for a pelvic abscess, diagnosed while he was on an official visit to Cuba.
But according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (OVP), a local non-governmental organisation, “the state cannot cover up the massacre of more than 20 prisoners in one day merely by saying it will create a Ministry for Prison Affairs. The state is responsible for these deaths,” Humberto Prado, the head of OVP told IPS.
Prado said that in 2010, 476 inmates were killed and 958 injured in Venezuela’s prisons, out of a prison population of 44,500, crowded into 34 facilities that were designed to house 14,500 prisoners.
In the first quarter of 2011 there have already been 22 percent more prison deaths than in the same period in 2010, Prado said. A total of 366 inmates were killed in 2009 and 422 in 2008.
A ministry “could be justified and might work if it is managed by experts using professional criteria, and if prisons are decentralised,” Carlos Nieto, of the prisoners’ rights organisation Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window on Freedom), told IPS.
“But under the Chávez administrations that have governed since 1999, what we have had is a succession of ministers, prison system directors and programmes like the 2006-2011 five-year ‘humanisation’ plan, which is concluding with these sad results for all to see,” Nieto said.
Human rights organisations in Venezuela stress that prisons are not under the control of the authorities, but controlled by inmates themselves who impose their own form of law and order behind prison walls.
Battles between gangs for control of a prison are even called “changes of government” in prison slang.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has granted precautionary measures for seven prisons since 2006, ordering the government to take measures to protect the lives of inmates, but without result.
Inmates “have revolvers, 9 mm pistols, grenades, rifles and even submachine guns, which are obviously not taken in by visiting relatives, but sold to them by ‘mafias’ of civilian and military guards,” Prado said.
Family members say that many inmates have at least two guns, and some “pranes” (gang leaders) have up to 20, as well as plenty of ammunition. In the latest prison brawl in El Rodeo Uno, at least 3,000 bullets are estimated to have been fired.
Many other rules are openly flouted or established at will by prisoners and their “pranes”, who are also connected with gangs on the outside. For instance, they organise parties on weekends, bringing in musicians and call girls.
They also have mobile phones, which it has been proved they use to commit crimes in association with accomplices on the streets. Recently prisoners kidnapped 22 civilian guards in El Rodeo Dos, filmed a video of their hostages asking to be released, and posted it on the Internet.
A New York Times journalist recently recorded a video in the prison on the tourist island of Margarita, which is under the control of an inmate nicknamed “Rabbit” and has all the trappings of a rustic resort, and where prisoners armed with guns have provided themselves with a swimming pool and barbecue stands and freely mingle with women.
But at the opposite end of the spectrum are the overcrowded blocks in many prisons and even in police lockups, like the judicial police holding facility in Caracas, where detainees are packed in so tightly that they only have room to stand, and have to sleep, eat and eliminate body wastes in that position.
Two weeks ago, three young men died there, and several police officers were arrested on suspicion that they had beaten the detainees, or punished them by placing them in unventilated areas of the filthy jail.
Family members say they have to pay bribes at the lockup to deliver food to the prisoners, and even then they sometimes have to spit on the food to prevent greedy guards from consuming the dishes en route to the cells.
“The point is, prisons have become big business. Prisoners are charged for everything,” and through violence prisoners try to “get resources to live on, in the midst of the filth, overcrowding,” and lack of any kind of constructive activities, Nieto said.
Prado recommended as a matter of urgency that commissions made up of inmates and authorities should be set up in the prisons in and around Caracas, to examine measures to improve respect for human rights.
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