Humanizing prisons a priority for Venezuela
Correo del Orinoco
Friday June 24, 2011 - Prison riots have left Venezuela in a state of seige this week as the government tries to implement widespread reforms in the penitentiary system.
|Streams of tear gas fired by national guardsmen fall over El Rodeo I, bottom, and El Rodeo II prison in Guatire, Venezuela, Sunday June 19, 2011. Thousands of National Guard troops stormed the prison, put down the riot and took control of the prison on Friday.
The National Guard and Ministry of Interior Relations and Justice have been attempting to quell a dangerous prison riot in a maximum security prison not far from the nation’s capital, Caracas. With an overriding principle of respect for human rights, government authorities have so far rescued thousands of prisoners who had been forced by gunpoint to obey criminal leaders running prison gangs. The incident comes as the government is undertaking a mass reform in the penitentiary structure, seeking to humanize and improve prison conditions and end internal mafias. Opposition forces and private media have attempted to manipulate the situation in an effort to destabilize the country.
Venezuelan Forces respond to gang violence, disarm prison
State response to the current prison crisis in Venezuela has been based on a premise of respecting human rights and not engaging lethal violence, despite deadly force employed by some prisoners
In response to a confrontation last week between rival gangs in Venezuelan prison El Rodeo I, the Venezuelan government has sent state security forces to disarm gang members and “preserve the lives of other prisoners” in both El Rodeo I and El Rodeo II penitentiaries. The altercation – which left 22 prisoners dead and over 50 injured – has prompted the government to initiate a series of measures in order to take the Revolution into the nation’s jails and regain control of the country’s prison system.
Vice-President Elias Jaua described the intervention by state forces as a ‘necessary’ measure and emphasized the government’s commitment to safeguarding the prisoner’s human rights.
“This undertaking isn’t to massacre prisoners, it is to protect their lives from a small group that have wrested control of the internal management of the prison and have committed a massacre in the past few days - resulting in 21 deaths (now confirmed at 22)”, said Jaua.
Combining both direct and ‘humanizing’ measures in order to address the problem, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last week also approved 413 million bolivars ($96 million) in order to completely reform the penitentiary system.
The Vice-President also highlighted that the government is addressing the problem from a systematic point of view - “we are working so that our people have the best material conditions so that their children can move forwards and don’t end up in prison.
In that exclusionary system, only the poor are sentenced”, he explained.
Venezuelan Forces respond to gang violence, disarm prison State response to the current prison crisis in Venezuela has been based on a premise of respecting human rights and not engaging lethal violence, despite deadly force employed by some prisoners
Prisons Evacuated, Weapons Seized
Thousands of inmates were evacuated to other detention centers throughout the country when gangs put up violent resistance to the operation and a fire broke out in El Rodeo I. So far the total number of inmate casualties is unknown - two officers have lost their lives as a result of the violence.
Vice-Minister of Prevention and Citizen Security for the Ministry of Interior Relations and Justice, Nestor Reverol, confirmed that the fire broke out in an ‘empty area’ of the prison and that no inmates were burned – as some sectors of the Venezuelan opposition have claimed.
There are currently around 1000 prisoners remaining in each of the two prisons – with gang leaders in El Rodeo II refusing to cooperate with the Venezuelan authorities despite days of sustained dialogue.
Friday los “Pranes” and el “Carro” – the two principal gangs in the prison - have attacked officers and held other inmates hostage as they fight to keep control of the penitentiary.
Venezuelan Human Rights Official Gabriela Ramirez confirmed that 90% of the prisoners that remain in El Rodeo II are under intense pressure from gang leaders and reported that rescued inmates stated they “wanted peace”. Calling on the leaders to abandon their violent attitudes and to turn themselves over to authorities, Ramirez reassured them that their human rights would be respected.
“Please boys, we are waiting for you here, with hand on heart, for the lives of each one of you. We don’t even want you to scratch yourselves! We want you to come out in a decent condition and without any trauma”, she said to the prisoners.
Following 6 hours of dialogue with inmates, Commander General of the Bolivarian National Guard, Motta Dominguez, confirmed that his forces had confiscated a total of; 7 semi-automatic guns, 5 shotguns, 20 pistols, 8 hand grenades, 45 kilos of cocaine, 5000 ammunition cartridges, 100 mobile phones and 12 kilos of marijuana the operation began on Friday.
Venezuelan Defense Minister General Carlos Mata specified that Venezuelan forces had acted within the “framework of the law” to “guarantee the human rights of the inmates” and uphold the fundamental right to life. Reports suggest that the situation is calm in both detention centers, but that a hostile atmosphere prevails in El Rodeo II. The Bolivarian National Guard now has complete control over El Rodeo I.
Opposition and Private Media Exploit Situation
The National Assembly has confirmed this Monday that it will launch an investigation in response to allegations made by prisoners in El Rodeo against human rights organizations. Following their evacuation, some prisoners have asserted that certain NGOs - in collaboration with private media outlets - deliberately and strategically fomented the violence within the prison.
In a televised interview with state channel VTV, one of the prisoners – who wished to remain anonymous – stated that many opposition NGOs are communicating with ‘El Carro’ and informing them what steps to take in order to create a “crisis”.
“The directions that they receive in the prisons come from a lot of opposition human rights groups, what they want is to create chaos in order to provoke a penitentiary emergency at a national level”, revealed the prisoner.
Maria Mercedes Berthe, Director of Fundamental Rights for the Public Ministry, communicated that at this stage the government couldn’t categorically state whether these allegations held truth or not.
“They are making these declarations in their capacity as witnesses. On the basis of this, we will keep investigating in order to find out the truth of these events”, announced Berthe.
The Venezuelan opposition and their private media channels have received strong criticism for exploiting the situation for political gain and releasing inaccurate information surrounding the operation in an attempt to destabilize and discredit the government.
Vice-President Elias Jaua condemned the inappropriate behaviour of some members of the opposition outside the penitentiary as an insult to the Venezuelan people.
“There they are, taking photos and giving false hugs to the poor women agonizing over their sons inside El Rodeo...Wretches! Don’t play with the Venezuelan people’s pain”, implored Jaua.
Venezuelans gathered at 10 am last Saturday morning in Plaza Madariaga, Caracas, in order to manifest their support for the Bolivarian National Guard and their actions in El Rodeo.
As of today, the tense situation persists in El Rodeo.
T/ COI P/ Agencies
Source: Correo del Orinoco (submitted to Axis of Logic by CDO)
Behind the Venezuelan Prison Riots: the State of Venezuela’s Prisons Today
Merida, June 21st 2011 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Five days into a deadly prison riot at one of Venezuela’s most notorious urban prisons, government officials today continued 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 Thursday night, the official death count includes four prisoners and two members of the National Guard. In addition, 38 people have been wounded- 18 prisoners and 20 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.
At midday Tuesday, the names of the 2,500 transferred prisoners were made public so as to calm uncertainty among prisoner’s families.
Violence in Venezuela’s Prisons
According to the International Centre 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) 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.”
Source: Venezuela Analysis