Venezuela promises to release thousands of prisoners

| Aug. 1, 2011 | Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela

Published by Christian Science Monitor

Just a month after a deadly prison siege in El Rodeo prison outside Caracas, Venezuela in which some 30 people died, Venezuelan authorities have announced plans to release 40 percent of the country's prison population.

Newly-appointed Minister for Prisons Iris Varela said that the release of some 20,000 prisoners would ease overcrowding, a major issue in jails across Venezuela and the entire region.

“Of the country's 50,000 prisoners, 20,000 should be out of jail," Ms. Varela told a local newspaper. The country's 30 prisons are designed to hold around 12,500 inmates. "In prison there are people that do not pose a danger to society, such as shoplifters who have no history of violence. They can be handled outside prison," she said.

But the new minister is likely to face criticism, even as overcrowding in jails is one of the issues for which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez constantly gets panned.

Venezuela is considered one of the region's most dangerous countries, with the murder rate in Caracas comparable to that of warzones such as Baghdad. While many prisoners may have gone into jail for minor crimes such as shoplifting, they will no doubt have been hardened by the “Dante-esque" conditions inside, according to Humberto Prado, who helps run the Venezuelan Prison Observatory.

Varela sought to dispel concerns of mass chaos. "I want to promise the Venezuelan people that we won't let the wolves loose," added Varela who was appointed by President Chavez last week. She will be keen to impress her new boss, especially as he prepares to go through a second bout of chemotherapy.

She declined to suggest how the gang violence and corruption that allowed events like El Rodeo to take place be fought.

Riots at El Rodeo jail, in Guatire just east of Caracas, left around 30 dead in a siege that lasted for 27 days. Thousands of troops attempted to regain control against inmates armed with AK47s, machine guns, and hand grenades. Family members waited outside a kilometer-wide perimeter for news of their loved ones, as shooting was heard from the complex.

“We face a truly serious prison crisis in which the state has not shown up with solutions and this has led to chaos," says Carlos Nieto Palma, a lawyer and university professor specializing in human rights who also runs the nongovernment organization Window to Freedom. He adds that the El Rodeo siege was one of the “most violent events to have occurred in a Venezuelan jail in the past 10 years.”

Prison violence is not new. It predates Chavez but over the years has attracted increasing attention. Last year, 476 inmates died in the country’s prison system, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory. One of the worst crises took place in 1994 when about 130 inmates were burned or hacked to death with machetes at the Sabaneta prison in Maracaibo.