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News: Law and Justice

Venezuela Moves to Humanize Prison System Amidst Hunger Strikes

Caracas, March 11, 2008, (venezuelanalysis.com) - Venezuelan Minister of Justice Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, announced Monday a plan to implement a new penitentiary model, with the aim of humanizing the prison system throughout the country. Rodríguez Chacín, made the announcement in response to hunger strikes that have spread to nine prisons throughout the country.

In addition to the hunger strike of more than two thousand prisoners, protests have also spread to another six prisons, and in the El Dorado prison, (made famous by Henri Charrière in his autobiography Papillon, where he documented the shocking treatment of prisoners there in the 1940's), families of the prisoners joined the hunger strikers.

The striking prisoners are demanding an end to regulations that restrict certain privileges, legal reforms to increase opportunities for working outside the prisons, improve health and food conditions as well as recreational facilities and above all an end to trial delays.

In particular, the hunger strikers are calling for the nullification of articles 374, 375, 406, 707, 456, 457, 458 and 459 of the Penal Code and paragraph 4 of article 460 and the last paragraph of article 470, which they say contradicts the Bolivarian Constitution adopted by popular vote in 1999 and denies prisoners their constitutional rights.

Public Defender Gabriela Ramírez, committed on Monday to submit an appeal to the Supreme Justice Tribunal within 24 hours to nullify the various articles in the Penal Code and put an end to the hunger strike.

"The aim is to end the implementation of various articles of the Penal Code, among others article 458. This will allow the speeding up of all the legal and judicial procedures," she clarified.

Article 458 stipulates that those who have committed crimes of homicide or rape can not be beneficiaries of privileges such as working outside the prison, or conditional release on probation for good behavior after serving part of their sentence.

Vice-president of the Criminal Court of the TSJ, Eladio Aponte Aponte, acknowledged the issue was pressing, but could not say exactly when the TSJ would respond to the appeal "because we have to analyze it to give a reply in keeping with the Bolivarian Constitution of the Republic of Venezuela."

Venezuela's Penal Code, enacted in 1926 and only partially modified in 1964 and 2000 is based on 19th century Spanish and Italian penal codes of classical orientation, and certain elements are anachronistic and contradictory to the constitution.

In some cases specific laws have been introduced to address these problems. such as the Drug Law, the Environmental Crimes Law, and the Law on Violence Against Women and the Family.

A new Criminal Procedure Code also came into effect on July 1, 1999, representing a shift from an inquisitorial system to an adversarial system, based on oral proceedings, guaranteeing the right to trial by jury, the possibility of pre-trial diversion, and a modest role for plea bargaining.

Despite these reforms, Venezuela's overstretched judicial system has produced bottlenecks in the courts and many prisoners remain un-sentenced awaiting trial.

These delays in trial proceedings contribute to over-crowding and as a result un-sentenced prisoners are often required to share cells with those already tried and sentenced, and those convicted of minor offenses, like petty theft, with prisoners convicted of murder.

The prison crisis in Venezuela is nothing new - as elsewhere in Latin America, crime and incarceration rates in Venezuela skyrocketed throughout the 1980's and 90's in conjunction with growing poverty as a result of harsh neoliberal policies.

A 1996 NACLA report by Mark Ungar documented a violent riot in Maracaibo's Sabaneta Prison in western Venezuela in January 1994, in which "prison officials nonchalantly told the press that they had no accurate body count because they could not identify all the body parts."

"The violence erupted after inmates threw fire-bombs into cellblocks housing rival gangs, triggering clashes in which approximately 150 prisoners were stabbed, shot, drowned, decapitated and burned to death," the report continued.

According to a 1997 Human Rights Watch report, "By the mid-1980s, prisons in Venezuela were already in a state of crisis, and by 1994 the crisis had worsened to such an extent that the Venezuelan Public Ministry warned that it "threaten[ed] democratic stability."

Although Venezuela's current prison population of 20 000 shows a significant decrease from an all time high of 31,400 in 1992, conditions inside Venezuela 32 jails are as bad as ever as criminal gangs fight for control of drugs, guns and territory. Government officials admit that the State has lost control of some institutions altogether. In 2007, 415 prisoners died as a result of prison violence, a rate of more than one a day, the Venezuelan Prison Observatory reported.

Minister Chacín recognized that the crisis in Venezuela's prison system is a serious problem facing the country and said the Ministry was working hard to resolve the problem.

Nine new prisons with modernized facilities and the objective of providing more humane conditions such as increased access to education and training would be inaugurated shortly Chacín assured.

"We are advancing, in good measure, in the discussion for internal peace in the prisons, a socialist, humanist peace," he added.

Authorities and functionaries of the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ), the Public Defender's Office and the Ministry of Justice will also establish five working groups, together with spokespeople from the various prisons around the country to come up with solutions to the multiple problems facing the Venezuelan prison system.

Vice-Minister of Justice Tarek El Aissami who met with inmates from the La Planta prison in Caracas Monday said the working groups would also address programs to "guarantee the re-incorporation" of prisoners back into society once their terms are completed.

The National Assembly Commission for Interior Policies has also created a specific sub-commission for the regulation of the penitentiary system, with the aim of resolving the problem.

President of the new sub-commission, Deputy Wilmer Iglesias, assured yesterday that this body would continue with the recuperation and renovation of Venezuela's badly rundown prison infrastructure, as well as the project of humanization of the prison system together with the Public Defender's Office, the Ministry of Justice and other relevant bodies.

"The experience that we have seen in visits to the prisons tells us that the State has lost control of the internal functioning of these and it is necessary to look for rapid solutions," Iglesias said.

The National Assembly has "committed to give priority to the revision of the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code," he assured.

The government is also working to reduce incarceration rates through measures to tackle the social roots of crime such as eradicating poverty and improving and democratizing policing through the Police Reform Law, Minister Chacín said.

Published on Mar 11th 2008 at 9.24pm