Caracas, November 17, 2014 (Venezuelanalysis.com) The first Festival of Penitentiary Theater, organized under the Ministry of Penitentiary Services (MPPSP), kicked off in Caracas last Thursday, November 13 and will continue through Sunday, November 23. Roughly 160 incarcerated people from 13 prison theater groups are performing in theaters throughout the Capital District.
The lights dimmed and when they suddenly came on, four actors dressed in dirty and ripped clothing started picking through the trash strewn about on the stage of the reclaimed National Theater. Then, as the actors made their way off of the stage and began to interact with audience members, there was a palpable feeling of tension in the crowd. Armed National Guard members stood by and theater-goers watched as the passionate actors hurried down the rows, showing pieces of paper and trash, bringing all of us attending the play directly into the performance itself.
A toddler screamed “Papa! Papa!” and then began to whimper as his father, one of the stars of the play, stayed in his role. Soon the tears developed into boisterous giggles as the artists comically displayed a night sleeping on the streets, swatting at mosquitos, through dramatic snores and flatulence. Quickly, a world of fantasy erupted as the actors sketched out scenes of everyday life, with love and humor. The constant costume and character changes demonstrated a capacity to move through many roles and bring the audience through “a series of emotions” as Caracas resident Maria Villazmil described.
Sunday’s performance “The King of the Dumpster” was put on by a theater group from the Community Penitentiary of Coro, located over 5 hours from the Capital. The play was one of twenty different performances taking place in Central Caracas and the Capital District neighborhoods of Catia and San Martin.
Rita Villaroel, Director of Culture for the MPPSP saw the festival as a broader part of the mission of the Ministry, “theater as an instrument of transformation” she said. “Here is the National Theater, the performers are not prisoners, they are artists,” she proclaimed to VA.com.
The Festival of Penitentiary Theater is just one of the recent initiatives launched by the 3-year old MPPSP, spearheaded by Iris Varela who the late President Chávez appointed to transform the prison system following a “prison crisis” that came to a head when a standoff at El Rodeo prison left dozens dead in 2011.
The MPPSP recently hosted a penitentiary dance festival, a singing competition and various sports matches where teams from different prisons compete against one another. Villaroel insisted that these cultural and sports events are part of the human rights that must be guaranteed to incarcerated people.
“The only right that incarcerated people don’t have is the right to free transit, but the other rights are guaranteed by the Ministry and the Venezuelan state….education, culture, sports, socio-productive work, the right to healthcare, guaranteeing their human rights and decent infrastructure”she told VA.com before the play begun.
All of the performances in the Festival of Penitentiary theater are free and open to the public. “The King of the Dumpster” was attended by around 100 people, a number of whom came to see their family members perform. In addition to the 5 actors, the piece was accompanied by a live band, playing traditional Venezuelan llanero music.
After the performance the mother of the guitar player was beaming. She had come with a dozen family members to see her son.“He always played in the house” she said “it was wonderful to see him on the stage at the national theater.” She hadn’t seen her son for months, and she, along with other family members, joined him on the stage to congratulated him on his accomplishment.
The little boy who had screamed for his father at the beginning of the play, was perched in his father’s arms as the actors took their final bow to a standing ovation. It was as if the theater and the stirring of emotions continued far after the play had come to a close. The band offered music to an enthusiastic crowd and family members and friends joined their loved ones on stage as other audience members exited the theater.
Juan Linares, a regular theater-goer in Caracas, admitted that when his wife suggested that they see a production of penitentiary theater, he was not very enthusiastic. However, since they happened upon the National Theater just as the production began, they decided to attend. Linares said that he was “surprised at the capacity that the actors had in performing the piece” and said that with their talent they should perform at the prestigious Teresa Carreño theater.
Maria Villazmil, who has built her profession in theater and also attended the play said that “it is important that this talent doesn’t get stifled, and that doors continue to open for these actors.”
Rita Villaroel noted that the MPPSP is providing post-penitentiary services and that a member of the theater troupe from the Los Teques Women’s Prisons (INOF) will be supported in pursuing a career in acting, upon her release. Villaroel was introduced to criminal justice issues through 4 years of doing theater work with incarcerated adolescents before assuming her position as Cultural Director of the MPPSP. With tears streaming down her face, she said that she is often the first to stand up and shout “Bravo! Bravo!” and that “the smile that we see on the faces of these incarcerated people is the motivation that we have for doing the work that we do.”
According to the website of the Ministry of Popular Power of Penitentiary Services (MPPSP), they have recently launched networks for family members of incarcerated peoples, and they are continuing to advance “Plan Cayapa” which brings lawyers and judges directly into the prison as a means of addressing the long backlog of incarcerated people in pre-trial detention. According to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, roughly 64% of incarcerated people in Venezuela have yet to be tried for their crimes.
Kevin, a 22 year-old incarcerated at El Rodeo prison just outside of Caracas told VA.com that roughly 100 people who had been held on drug possession charges (of 20 grams or less) were released in one day through “Plan Cayapa.” Adriana, whose husband is in prison at El Rodeo, said “I applaud the Minister (Varela) for Play Cayapa, I think it is their most important work.”
One of the goals of the MPPSP is to decrease the notorious violence in Venezuelan prisons. According to a report by the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, 150 people were killed in Venezuelan prisons in the first 6 months of 2014. While this number may be alarming, it is a dramatic decline from the 591 people killed in prisons in 2012.
Villaroel noted that while the MPPSP had accomplished many things, it still had a long way to go. “We are in our infancy” she said, “there is still a lot of work for us to do.” While conditions in Venezuela’s prisons have been condemned by Amnesty International, the United Nations and international press, very little media attention has been paid to some of the advances of the MMPSP and the recent decrease in violence in prisons in Venezuela.