Venezuela: Maduro Promises a ‘Revolution’ of Justice and Prison System

Human rights collective Surgentes told Venezuelanalysis that the reforms must eradicate the class-based character of the administration of justice in the country.

Members of the Surgentes human rights collective march near the Venezuelan National Assembly
Members of the Surgentes human rights collective march near the Venezuelan National Assembly

Mexico City, Mexico, June 23, 2021 ( – Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro committed to a thorough overhaul of the country’s judicial and prison system in order to reduce overcrowding and the delayed administration of justice.

“We have come to a conclusion: in Venezuela, at this stage of the construction of the new state, a deep and accelerated revolution is needed to shake up and transform the entire national justice system,” said Maduro.

The need for judicial reform is a longstanding issue in Venezuela, with slow and bureaucratic processing leading to a very slow administration of justice and a subsequent overcrowding seen in jails and prisons. The issue has worsened as a result of the pandemic.

Surgentes, a human rights collective that works to address police violence, told Venezuelanalysis that the government was compelled to act on the issue due to grassroots pressure.

“Undoubtedly, there has been popular pressure from different sectors, especially campesino and worker sectors who have been prosecuted for demanding rights or denouncing irregular situations in their workplaces and who face serious judicial delays, in addition to violations of their rights,” Ana Barrios, a member of Surgentes, told Venezuelanalysis.

The collective said that upcoming elections, as well as an ongoing investigation at the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding the potential prosecution of the Venezuelan state for crimes against humanity also played a role in the government’s decision. The Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office has submitted several reports to the ICC detailing its efforts to address alleged human rights abuses by state officials.

President Maduro authorized the creation of a commission that would be required to submit its recommendations in short order and was empowered to make proposals for “structural” reforms. The commission will be headed by lawmakers Diosdado Cabello and Cilia Flores, alongwith Justice Lourdes Suárez Anderson.

The commission was tasked with specifically addressing the overcrowding problem within 60 days. Cabello stated that the commission had set out to visit all detention facilities within 30 days and clear out the country’s jails 30 days after that. Relatives of incarcerated people and NGOs have denounced the insufficiently nutritious food provided to inmates, exposure to disease, as well as the generally poor conditions of jails.

Surgentes expressed concern that the stated intention of the government to quickly address longstanding problems would blunt the commission’s ability to implement the necessary reforms.

“We believe and hope that this effort does not refer only to the situation of the prison system, which is obviously very serious, but which is the last link in the justice system, said Barrios. ”The issues will not be solved in a structural way if measures are only taken to decongest prisons and the other links in this chain are left intact,” she added.

The human rights collective stressed that without addressing the structural reasons for overcrowding, the problem would soon develop anew.

“Part of the solution to the problem has to do with eradicating the class-based character that the administration of justice has historically had in Venezuela, with a reduction of the high level of punitiveness that is exercised against the poorest and most excluded part of the population,” said Barrios.

During the early years of President Chávez’s leadership, there was an effort to reduce incarceration and a focus on human rights, with an overhaul of the state security apparatus and initiatives such as the National Experimental Security University (UNES). However, as early as 2010 there was a return to the types of repressive strategies of the neoliberal 1990s governments.

Surgentes and other organizations have denounced the Maduro government’s emphasis on hardline “tough on crime” policies, along with the effects of the pandemic, as worsening an already difficult situation in the South American country’s prisons and jails.

As is common in prisons throughout the region, the state does not exercise control over all facilities, with organized crime inside the prisons often controlling access to basic services.

A previous effort to address conditions in prisons failed to solve the overcrowding problem and Venezuela’s prisons have seen a number of riots in recent years.

Barrios said that human rights organizations nonetheless welcomed the opportunity to participate in the effort to implement changes to Venezuela’s judicial and penal system.

Edited by Ricardo Vaz from Mérida.