Over 500 inmates have died in Venezuela’s prisons in the year since the government set up the new Prison Ministry, according to a report, despite the ministry’s efforts to reform the corrupt and overcrowded penitentiary system.
According to a report released by the NGOs A Window to Freedom and the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (OVP), 523 inmates have died in the country’s prisons in the year since the government created the Ministry of Penitentiary Services (MPPSP), on July 26, 2011.
In addition to the deaths, 1,967 prisoners were injured, a rate of more than five a day, reported EFE.
The Prison Ministry’s head, Iris Varela, announced last year that she would take a “humanist” approach to reforming Venezuela’s prison system, introducing sports and culture programs to rehabilitate inmates, and would reduce the number of inmates by processing and reviewing cases more quickly. Varela said that many prisoners were “victims of the bureaucratic system.”
Carlos Nieto, head of A Window to Freedom, declared that the figures showed “nothing has changed,” with the country’s systems still running at 340 percent capacity, despite the creation of a new ministry.
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Venezuela’s prison system is one of the worst in Latin America. For example, as Nieto noted, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico all have larger prison populations and suffer from overcrowding (see Global Post map on Latin America’s prisons), yet they only see around 150 deaths a year on average.
Inmate gang bosses known as “pranes” are in control of many of Venezuela’s jails, with the OVP estimating that of Venezuela’s 34 prisons, the government only has control of six. One of the country’s most notorious prisons, La Planta in Caracas, which was closed down in May, is emblematic of this. When soldiers moved in to try and shut it down, they were met with stiff resistance, sparking violent clashes. The underground economy in La Planta was estimated to earn inmates $3.7 million a year.
Part of the problem is the vast number of pre-trial detainees in the system who can spend years awaiting trial due to the country’s inefficient judicial system. Varela has said that 24 new jails will be constructed in two years exclusively for pre-trial detainees, and that the aim is to reach a waiting time of no longer than eight months. However, according to Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, institutional incapacity, the exclusion of non-state actors and the government’s continued opposition to decentralization mean real progress will be difficult.