Venezuela Moves to Humanize Prison System Amidst Hunger Strikes

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 in response to thousands of hunger striking prisoners.
Vice Minister for Justice, Tarek El Aissami meets with inmates in the La Planta prison (Zurimar Campos, ABN)

Caracas, March 11, 2008,
( – 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

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

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.