by Juan Reardon, 21 June 2011
One week into a deadly prison riot at one of Venezuela’s most notorious urban prisons, government officials are continuing their efforts to bring the riot and kidnapping to a close through dialogue. Having already transferred the majority (2,500) of El Rodeo Prison’s inmates to nearby prisons, authorities said they are negotiating directly with the Pranes prison gang in an attempt to secure the release of the remaining 1,000 prisoners. Since clashes began late last Thursday night, the official death count includes one prisoner and two members of the National Guard. In addition, 38 people have been wounded- 18 prisoners and 22 members of the security forces. According to a National Guard spokesman, 36 inmates were “rescued” from “violent prisoners” on Monday afternoon, though gunshots were reported late Monday night. Another 39 were rescued on Tuesday. At midday Tuesday, the names of the 2,500 transferred prisoners were made public so as to calm uncertainty among prisoner’s families.
According to the International Center for Prison Studies (ICPS), the 43,461 people currently held in Venezuelan prisons place the country’s prison population rate at 149 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. Countries in the region with higher prison population rates (based on the same per 100,000 figure) include the United States (743), Chile (305), Guyana (284), Brazil (253), Mexico (200), and Colombia (181). While Venezuela’s per capital prison rate is lower than some in the region, violent clashes are commonplace; with figures from an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearing that refer to 476 dead and 967 wounded in 2010 alone. A year earlier, the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP), which receives funding from the US government, published their 2009 report placing the total number of prisoners killed and wounded that year at 366 and 635, respectively. While these figures are troubling, they can be considered an improvement if compared to prison violence in 2008 (422 dead, 854 wounded) and 2007 (498 dead, 1,023 wounded). Overcrowding appears to be a major factor triggering Venezuela’s levels of prison violence. According to InsightCrime.com, Venezuela has the capacity to house 14,500 inmates in a total of 34 prisons nationwide, but with almost 44,000 prisoners the country is nearing three times as many prisoners as capacity to house them.
El Rodeo I and II, for example, were originally designed to house 750 prisoners, one fifth of the actual 3,500 they were holding at the time riots began on Thursday. In late April of this year, prisoners at El Rodeo also took 22 officials hostage in what they claimed was a protest against a tuberculosis outbreak in the prison. Earlier this month, clashes between gangs at El Rodeo left 22 prisoners dead, and the recent spat of violence is said to have begun after government forces began a search and seizure operation to unarm El Rodeo’s prison population.
The high prison populations reflect government attempts to satisfy the general population’s frustrations with elevated crime rates across the country, especially in urban centers. The current government is making more of an effort than previous governments to combat corruption in the security forces and state institutions, as well as violence against women, and street violence. Meanwhile, it is also implementing a “prison humanization” program which includes a prison orchestra, cultural classes, job training, and allowing non-risk prisoners to leave prisons during the day.
It is also encouraging community policing, with an emphasis on crime prevention. Unfortunately though, changes have been slow in coming.
CONTEXTUALIZING PRISON VIOLENCE
In April this year, Venezuela’s National Assembly unanimously passed a new Penitentiary Code bill aimed at reducing violent crime in the country’s prisons. According to Correo del Orinoco, the newly enacted legislation has four core principles: respect for human rights, the classification of inmates, the establishment of sanctions for those who violate accepted norms in the treatment of those serving time, and the development of alternative sentences related to conditional freedom, study and work. Blanca Eekhout, vice president of the National Assembly, called for an end to gang-related prison violence, affirming that the current Venezuelan government’s efforts to “humanize prisons” are only possible if authorities are able to dismantle the “prison gangs that have become an institution within prison walls, a drama throughout the continent and throughout our history”.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Venezuelan National Assembly president Fernando Soto Rojas put the current prison violence into context. Referring specifically to El Rodeo, Rojas said, “What is happening in our prisons is not separate from a concrete, historical reality, above and beyond the responsibilities the revolution has” in bringing the current prison violence to a halt. “We want to know how these weapons, including weapons of war, entered the prisons, and this question must be investigated in depth, no matter who might fall (politically) as a result”, he said.
Eekhout also accused the Venezuelan opposition of “opportunism” surrounding the El Rodeo prison violence, saying that opposition statements to the press have served only to heighten tension among prisoners’ families and are part of an “irresponsible, permanent attempt to destabilize” the country. Members of the Venezuelan opposition have jumped at the opportunity to highlight the suffering of poor and working families – the Chavez government’s base of support – people who have relatives confined in overcrowded prisons.
These “opportunists,” she said, “are the vultures of Venezuelan politics. They have never respected the country, never believed in the capabilities of our people, and would love nothing more than to see another massacre against prisoners…like what we all saw in Catia (1992)”. On 27 November 1992, under the government of then president Carlos Andres Perez, Venezuelan authorities stormed El Reten de Catia – a Caracas prison built to temporarily house 700 prisoners but held 4,000 at the time – killing somewhere between 63 and 200 prisoners.
According to Amnesty International, “the National Guard is alleged to have entered the prison [El Reten de Catia] firing indiscriminately”. Venezuelan Vice-President Elias Jaua went even further, calling opposition spokespeople who have in recent days visited the perimeters of El Rodeo “a miserable lot”. “There they are…taking their photos, giving fake embraces to the impoverished women who are living a great deal of anxiety, waiting to get information about their sons locked up in El Rodeo Prison”, he said. Jaua speculated that if a prison riot of this nature had occurred during “the 4th Republic” (1958-1998), “hundreds of prisoners would have already been killed, since the security forces would have been sent in at once to massacre prisoners”.