Inmate Takeovers Reflect Chaos in Venezuela Prisons

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Two mass kidnappings inside prisons in under a month have rattled Venezuela, and offered further evidence that the system may be on the verge of collapse.

The first jailhouse kidnapping took place at the Rodeo II prison on April 27, when 22 officials, including the warden, were held by inmates who said they were protesting an outbreak of tuberculosis. The inmates released the hostages a week later in exchange for the removal of the prison director and the promise of a government investigation into the poor conditions, wire service EFE reported.

On May 22, 15 employees of the La Planta detention center in Caracas were held by inmates protesting their mistreatment by the facility’s employees. The hostages were released 24 hours later.

A creaky, overstuffed system facilitates such incidents. For instance, La Planta has an intended capacity of no more than 450 inmates, yet more than 2,700 are housed there. The situation in La Planta is extreme, but reflects a widespread problem. Venezuela has space for 14,500 inmates in its 34 prisons, but there are more than 44,000 people behind bars.

Such a stretched system invites problems, and there have been many incidents reflecting a lack of control over prisons in recent years. Eight prisoners escaped from a municipal jail in Chacao province last July, while two more slipped out of La Planta earlier this year. Violence, carried out not just with homemade blades, or shivs, but with advanced weaponry, is also quite widespread. In March, for instance, a grenade explosion killed one inmate and wounded two more in La Planta. In 2010, according to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, 476 inmates out of more than 14,500 total died violently in Venezuela, a rate far worse than that of Colombia (16 dead inmates out of 80,000 total) and Brazil (36 out 450,000). This is despite the fact that both the latter countries suffer from notoriously violent and powerful organized criminal bands.

Beyond the mortality figures, prisons in Venezuela are notorious for incubating active criminal networks. Extortion rackets in particular are quite common, with inmates scanning the classified section of the newspapers in search of potential targets. Gangs specializing in kidnapping for ransom are often run by inmates, with a stint behind bars doing little to impede ringleaders from continuing their activities. As is the case in other Latin American countries, including Colombia, the criminals in Venezuelan prisons are flush with cash and maintain their connections to the outside. Meanwhile the institutions housing them labor under meager budgets, allowing the inmates to dominate.

Venezuela has previously taken a number of measures to gain control over its prisons, though their impact has been limited. For close to 20 years, the University Institute for Penitentiary Studies has trained students in the science of keeping criminals locked up. However, of close to 1,000 graduates of the institution, only 23 are presently working in Venezuelan prisons.

The federal government also announced a one billion dollar spending plan in 2006 to “humanize” the prisons, with measures including setting up prison orchestras. This seems to reflect the Venezuelan government’s denial that the prison problem is rooted in overcrowding, and that the solution would be to build more.

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