On July 26 Venezuela’s new Ministry of Penitentiary Services will celebrate its first anniversary. It’s been a tough year, with 2011 showing a resurgence of inmate deaths and renewed prison conflicts.

In response to the violence in the El Rodeo prison in June-July 2011, which killed at least 25 inmates (though family members say there are still 100 inmates unaccounted for), the Chávez government created a new Ministry of Penitentiary Service (Ministerio del Poder Popular para el Servicio Penitenciario MPPSP) to substitute for the Dirección Nacional de Servicios Penitenciarios. National Assembly representative Iris Varela was named to head it.

With no executive experience, and a reputation for fistfights more than negotiation, few were optimistic about Varela’s ability to address what is probably the most complex administrative problem in the country. Indeed, there were 560 inmate deaths in 2011, 233 of these occurring after the creation of the new ministry. This amounted to a 20% increase over the 476 prisoners that died in 2010. And 2012 is shaping up to be bloody as well, with 124 deaths in the first three months alone. Other than piecemeal media reports, there is no public information available on the ministry’s activities, and its first memoria y cuenta (annual report) does not have to be filed until March 2013.

Of course Varela and the ministry inherited a system in crisis. The system has 34 facilities with capacity for 18,500 inmates, but which house 50,000. The incarceration rate–which through 2008 had actually declined from 103 per 100,000 in 1998, the year Chavez was elected–has soared in the past three years to 170. Two thirds of the inmates are pretrial detainees. In other words, they are being held preemptively, awaiting their day in court. The number of people incarcerated has likely grown more than this because local police stations are increasingly used to hold pretrial detainees. The latter frequently pay bribes in order not to be taken to more violent prisons.

In 2010-2011 the Ministry of the Interior and Justice (Ministerio del Poder Popular para Relaciones Interiores y Justicia (MPPRIJ)), published a socio-demographic study of the penitentiary population. Of those imprisoned, 45% are under 25 years of age (however this roughly corresponds to the population pyramid of Venezuela). Unsurprisingly 68% of those imprisoned come from the poorest social classes. The main causes for imprisonment are crimes against property (39%), drug crimes (23.4%), and homicides (22.76%). The percentage of those imprisoned for theft and for drug related crimes has increased slightly (5.8% thefts and 2.4% drugs). This probably reflects the 2005 reform of the penal code which increased prison sentences for crimes against property and for carrying small amounts of drugs.

Not only overcrowding but the lack of food and clean water are serious concerns and have worsened in the last two years. Indeed, most families bring food to inmates when they visit or pay guards in order for their incarcerated family members to be fed. In 2006 the government put forward a five year “humanization plan” including the increase of alternative sentencing, increase of work opportunities, and the refurbishing and construction of new prisons. It contemplated creating new facilities for 13,000 inmates but has only been able to create 2,700.

According to human rights group Provea, there have been some positive improvements in access to health and educational services, and the opportunity to work. Health personnel regained access to some penitentiaries and were able to treat inmates. Government educational missions also gained more access, as well as private education initiatives such as the Asociación Venezolana de Educación Católica.

Crisis in La Planta

But managing the Venezuelan prison system means, for the most part, managing crises. In March 2012 a new conflict began in La Planta, a prison located near downtown Caracas. It started with a protest by families of inmates, demanding a solution to overcrowding and “inhuman” conditions. Minister Varela declared that the only solution to the perpetual crisis in La Planta was to close it and transfer all the inmates to other prisons. This move triggered inmate resistance which evolved into a fierce gun battle between heavily armed prisoners and the National Guard, lasting for days. The gun shots could be heard across the city and several bystanders were injured. One person was even killed in his apartment some ten blocks away by a bullet fired from the prison. The crisis caused chaos throughout Western Caracas, where schools and universities had to suspend classes. Many businesses also remained closed.

Authorities established a wide perimeter around La Planta keeping the media and prison activists at a distance. In June 2011, the crisis in El Rodeo prison received live coverage from television station Globovisión, resulting in their being fined $2.1 million for dubious charges of “inciting crime,” “subverting public order,” and “promoting hatred and anxiety in the population.” And prison rights activitist Humberto Prado, after criticizing the conditions in El Rodeo and the National Guard’s attempt to storm the prison, was publicly denounced by government officials for trying to “destabilize the prison system” (Minister of Interior and Justice Tarek El Aissami), for “trying to destabilize the country” (Vice President  Elias Jaua), and for stirring the conflict between inmates and the National Guard (State television show host, Mario Silva).

Nevertheless, prisoners in La Planta were able to get their message out. They uploaded a video from the prison that went viral. In it inmates say that Minister Varela is at fault for any deaths that occur because of her unwillingness to listen to their demands. They said they wanted to stay in La Planta because their court cases were in Caracas. They demanded a reestablishment of family visitation, access to case review lawyers with the power to sign release papers, and other humanitarian measures. They also complained that Varela was preventing the media from reporting on their situation and they demanded the right to talk to them. They also criticized the abuse of pretrial detention. In the video prisoners state “If you do not feel like you are competent in your position, give it to someone else who can fulfill our demands.” The video enraged Minister Varela and she threatened to break off negotiations.

The crisis ended May 18 with the transfer of all prisoners. The inmates were apparently forced to surrender after running out of food and water. As with the 2011 crisis in El Rodeo, it appeared to be President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello who had negotiated the solution, not Minister Varela, reinforcing perceptions that Varela is not up to the post. La Planta was closed on May 19, and by May 24 Minister Varela announced that only a hand grenade and an undetermined number of used ammunition shells had been found. This stands at odds with the gun battles heard during the event  and can only lead to suspicions that the inmates took their arms with them.

Crisis in Mérida

A similar crisis built over months in the Centro Penitenciario de la Región Andina, in Mérida. For months internal conflicts among prisoners left dozens dead or wounded. On June 20, the National Guard attempted to take control of the prison. Almost a month of resistance by the prisoners left 17 prisoners dead and 48 people wounded, including four national guardsmen as well as an officer from the Prisons Ministry. During the conflict the main leader of the prisoners, “Ever,” made it known through wounded prisoners who were allowed to leave the siege that he agreed to arms requisitions by the authorities but not to the transfer of prisoners.

On July 21 Minister Varela announced the resolution of the crisis. According to press accounts Ever had been abandoned by more than 117 prisoners that had escaped the siege and had been left with only 100 of his most loyal supporters. According to Varela, as prisoners tried to evade Ever’s group, some were shot in the back. Eventually Ever decided to surrender to the authorities. He and his followers will be transferred to an as yet unnamed maximum security prison.

In our next post we will look at the structure of Venezuela’s prisons crisis and the Ministry’s efforts at reform.