Examining Venezuela's Prison System

7 MINS READAug 1, 2011 | 11:57 GMT
A recent, monthlong riot in a Venezuelan prison complex has highlighted the conditions of the country's overcrowded, corrupt and violent prison system. The Venezuelan government has almost no control inside these prisons, which are instead dominated by inmate leaders known as "pranes." The Venezuelan government has made some attempts to reform the system, but any changes would have to be made with the approval of pranes loath to relinquish their monopoly on power.
Venezuela's Rodeo prison complex, located 38 kilometers (24 miles) east of Caracas, recently was the scene of a monthlong riot. The conflict began June 12 in Rodeo I when an armed visitor killed an inmate. Neither assailant nor victim has yet been identified. At 5 a.m. June 18, the sixth day of the riot, 5,000 Venezuelan national guard troops moved into Rodeo I. Though troops established full control by 3 p.m., inmates barricaded themselves into the connected Rodeo II. A standoff began and lasted until July 13. Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami said two national guard troops were killed. The government claimed that only about 50 inmates had been hostile and were holding about 1,000 against their wills and that 1,019 inmates were removed from the facility at the end of the conflict. The Venezuelan government also reported the seizure of weapons, drugs and cellphones. El Aissami said negotiations brought the standoff to a close. This explanation, though, is highly suspicious in light of the escape that same day of Yorvis Valentin "Oriente" Lopez Cortez, one of the prison's inmate leaders known as "pranes," despite the heavy presence of national guard troops on the complex's perimeter. El Aissami admitted that inmates took advantage of a partial withdrawal of surveillance from the prison to escape. The government did not explain the pullback, except to deny that it had anything to do with the escape, or that the escape led to the end of the standoff. The riot at Rodeo has roots in issues that affect the entire Venezuelan prison system. These include overcrowding, corruption and the complete control the pranes wield over the prisons' internal stability.

Prison Conditions

Venezuela's prisons are immensely overcrowded. Caracas-based nongovernmental organization Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones (Venezuelan Prison Observatory) reports that the country's 33 or 34 prisons — reports vary — were built to hold 14,500 inmates, yet current estimates put the prison population at 44,850. And the overcrowding is getting worse: The number of inmates has increased 36 percent, from 32,550 in January 2002, with no increase in facilities, according to another Venezuelan nongovernmental organization, Una Ventana a La Libertad (A Window to Freedom). The Rodeo complex was built to house 750 inmates. But Venezuelan Vice Minister of Citizens' Security Nestor Reverol said that at the time of the Rodeo riots, it held nearly 4,700. Additionally, Una Ventana a La Libertad reported that 78 percent of Venezuelan inmates have not been convicted of a crime. The overcrowding also makes it impossible to separate prisoners based on crimes committed, threat level, age or even sex in some cases. Instead, all inmates live together. Most prisoners do not have access to basic services such as potable water, food or functional restrooms, unless they can pay for them. They also generally lack access to basic medical care — La Pica prison has only one medical professional for a population of 1,000. However, inmates with money can buy a wide variety of contraband, from handguns and drugs to plasma televisions and prostitutes. From a security standpoint, Venezuelan authorities are primarily concerned with containment (keeping inmates from escaping) rather than internal stability. The Venezuelan national guard handles perimeter security, while the Ministry of Interior and Justice is theoretically responsible for security inside the prisons. However, inmates significantly outnumber guards: A 2006 report from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights reported that La Pica prison has only 16 guards for more than 500 prisoners. These conditions have led to one of the most violent prison systems in Latin America. Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones reports a total of 4,506 deaths and 13,003 injuries caused by inmate violence between 1999 and 2010, and the rate of violence has increased along with the number of inmates. Moreover, Venezuelan crime statistics are notoriously unreliable, so this figure could be even higher than reported. In 2009, when El Aissami assumed his post, he planned to have 25 facilities built, with a capacity of 13,055 inmates. But it is unclear if construction has begun on any of the new facilities — and worsening economic conditions in the country make their completion dates even less clear.

The Pranes

Internal stability in the prisons is almost fully controlled by the pranes. A pran and his criminal cohorts, including enforcers known as "luceros," oversee the distribution of drugs, purchase and distribution of weapons, kidnappings, protection of inmates, prostitution and even food. The fact that all inmates are held together in general population provides a boost for the pranes in these endeavors, allowing them freedom of movement and control. All inmates are forced to pay a pran a weekly "causa" (rent) of between 50 and 130 bolivares ($11-$30). Some prisoners are subjected to additional fees, either because of their wealth or their need for extra protection. Inmates also pay the pranes for extra privileges: An air conditioning unit costs up to 4,000 bolivares, handguns cost around 300 bolivares and wealthy inmates can pay 4,000-10,000 bolivares per month to sleep in administrative areas of prisons normally reserved for high-value inmates and incarcerated public officials. The power of the pranes was made evident in a June 3 New York Times video report detailing the San Antonio prison on the island of Margarita. The video described the prison as a resort, complete with a swimming pool and Internet service. STRATFOR sources say the pranes negotiate with command groups inside the Venezuelan national guard, referred to as "companeros de armas" (comrades in arms), for all incoming contraband, including weapons. Thus, because most of the inmates' weapons come from military caches, they are at least as well-armed as the national guard, making physical intervention into the prisons extremely dangerous.

Attempts at Reform

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has spoken of reforming the prison system, but there has been very little follow-through. Financing these reforms is a low priority compared to other initiatives designed to keep Chavez popular. A newly announced Prison Services Ministry, headed by lawmaker Iris Varela, is meant to improve inmates' lives through increased personal-development programs and services. However, if the pranes see Varela as a threat, the new ministry could cause more problems than it solves. Because the state is not in control of security inside the prisons, any changes will require agreements with the pranes, which, given the pranes' monopoly on trade, are unlikely to occur. The pranes' power was demonstrated during the Rodeo riot. Most theories concerning the underlying causes of the conflict center around a slowdown in weapons shipments into the prison. The pranes likely were using the riot to send a message to Venezuelan authorities that disrupting their business in the prison carries consequences. Varela also has stated plans to review cases and release inmates who have spent significant time in prison. However, inmates who have spent much time in Venezuelan prisons will have experienced extremely violent conditions and will likely be freed as hardened criminals. The Venezuelan prison system has been in this state for decades and, because of pervasive corruption in the country's justice system, is unlikely to change. Too many in the Venezuelan establishment are making money from this system, and the government simply lacks the funds and political will to fully overhaul it. Moreover, unless conditions inside the prisons grow so bad as to affect those outside (by way of a massive escape, or an amnesty program that puts a large number of criminals on the street at once), Venezuelan society at large will not see a reason to press for reform. However, continued riots such as the one in Rodeo could increase political pressure to the point where the government uses force to crush them — which could cause inmates' families to begin protesting outside.

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