An estimated 1,000 prisoners have escaped from Venezuelan prisons this year, according to one NGO that monitors the country’s penitentiaries, reflecting the chaotic state of the country’s violent, overcrowded penal system.
An investigation by Venezuelan NGO A Window to Freedom (Una Ventana a la Libertad) found that no prisons in Venezuela conduct daily censuses keep track of their inmate populations, leading to poor oversight and little accountability regarding prisoner escapes. Based on sources within the prison system, the NGO estimates that at least 1,000 inmates have escaped since the start of the year.
Escaping from prison requires large amounts of money to bribe prison officials, newspaper El Universal notes, though the amount varies depending on institution. This means that those who manage to escape are usually prison bosses, known as “pranes,” inmates who use their positions of power to collect a weekly “fee” from fellow prisoners and run extortion and kidnapping rackets outside the prison walls.
A Window to Freedom has demanded greater investigation into the guards and wardens of prisons from which inmates have escaped and urged the Ministry of Penitentiary Services (MPPSP) to begin overseeing the daily count of prisoners.
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While many other countries in Latin America suffer from overcrowded, underfunded penitentiary systems, the Venezuelan prison system is one of the most violent in the region.
In response to multiple violent prison riots, such as the June 2011 inmate takeover of El Rodeo II prison, the government created the Ministry of Penitentiary Services in mid-2011 to tackle overcrowding. Upon her appointment in July of last year, Prison Minister Iris Varela announced that she would take a “humanist approach” to prison reform, promising to implement education, sports, and culture programs for inmates. She also explained her ministry’s plan to reclassify prisoners according to the crimes they committed, allowing up to 40 percent of inmates to be released immediately and easing the burden on overcrowded prisons.
So far, however, evidence suggests that the reforms have failed to reduce violence and overcrowding. In the year since the government set up the new ministry, over 500 inmates died, 1,967 were injured, and the prison system has continued to run at 340 percent capacity.
According to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP), the state only controls six out of the country’s 34 prisons. In the others, the “pranes” and their gangs have near total control over prison life, allowing them to smuggle in weapons, drugs, and even women. In some prisons, the underground economies can reach into the millions of dollars.