Freeing Inmates Not Enough to Fix Venezuela Prisons

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Venezuela’s new prison minister has promised to release nearly half of the country’s inmates in an effort to ease overcrowding, but this fails to take into account the many other structural flaws in Venezuela’s broken penal system.

According to Venezuela’s new prison minister, Iris Varela, 40 percent of the country’s 50,000 inmates could soon be free. In an interview with El Nacional, Varela declared that the major contributor to the country’s prison crisis is overcrowding, saying “For me, the achievement will not be to open prisons, but to close them.”

The minister, who was appointed by President Hugo Chavez on June 25, said that officials will begin work this week to expedite the release of up to 20,000 inmates who meet certain legal requirements and do not pose a threat to society. She was careful to assure Venezuelans that authorities will not let “wolves loose on the streets.”

Some of Varela’s other remarks are sure to raise the ire of Chavez’s critics, who have repeatedly expressed concerns about the state of judicial independence in the country. According to BBC Mundo, the newly-appointed minister, a loyal Chavista, offered a firm warning to judges opposed to her work: “If a judge gives me problems, I’ll tell the president of the TSJ [Supreme Justice Tribunal] to remove him from his position.”

The announcement comes just one month after more than 25 people were killed in deadly clashes at the El Rodeo prison complex in Guatire, a city just twenty five miles east of Caracas. The deaths sparked a 27-day standoff between prisoners and security forces, which finally came to an end on July 13.

Last year, 476 inmates were killed and another 967 were injured, according to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, an non-governmental organization which monitors prison conditions. From 1999 to 2010, a total of 4,506 inmates reportedly died and 12,518 were injured, a phenomenon which the group has linked to a lack of institutional capacity to deal with overflowing prisons in the country. The organization’s director, Humberto Prado, told AFP in July that the entire El Rodeo prison complex housed more than 3,600 inmates although it only has capacity for 750, forcing hundreds of inmates sleep on the floor, stairs and hallways.

While Varela’s concerns are valid, it should be noted that her strategy would not represent an end to prison overcrowding. Citing official figures, AFP notes that Venezuelan prisons are meant to hold only 14,000 inmates, which means that even if all of the proposed 20,000 are released, the prison system would still hold more than twice its intended population.

Overcrowding is not the only problem of Venezuela’s prisons. Many, if not most, are controlled by street gangs, and serve as “revolving doors” for criminal activity. Inmates have nearly unlimited access to visitors, who frequently smuggle in drugs and weapons. In these institutions, the real powerbrokers are often the gang leaders, or “pranes,” rather than their guards. The New York Times’ Simon Romero profiled one such prison on Margarita Island in June, taking special note of the respect afforded by inmates to the prison’s “pran,” Teofilo Rodriguez, alias “El Conejo.” As InSight Crime has previously noted, many of these gang bosses maintain their criminal networks outside ot the prison walls, continuing to organize extortion rings, kidnapping networks and minor drug trafficking operations while in jail.

On July 12, President Chavez announced that he would invest 413 million bolivars ($96 million) in reforming the prison system, but it is still unclear how that money will be spent. Venezuela has made similar attempts in the past, including a one billion dollar plan to “humanize” the prison system in 2006. As the Venezuela Prison Observatory’s annual report for that year indicates, however, prison deaths have since increased by nearly 15 percent.

Ultimately, the criminal penetration of Venezuela’s prisons cannot be solved by simply by releasing more of them. It will require significant investment into the criminal justice sector, on top of major reform of law enforcement. The government may even have to construct new prisons, despite Varela’s reluctance.

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