Prisoner Rights Restored Following Venezuelan Supreme Court Decision

Hunger striking prisoners in Venezuela obtained a legal tool to facilitate their reinsertion in society on Monday after the Supreme Court approved an injunction that could lead to a ruling that key articles of the penal code are unconstitutional.
The President of the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice, Luisa Estela Morales (VTV)

Mérida, April 23, 2008 (— Hunger striking prisoners in Venezuela obtained a legal tool to facilitate their reinsertion in society on Monday, after the president of Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), Luisa Estela Morales, approved an injunction that could lead to a ruling that key articles of the penal code are unconstitutional.

The measure “is of transcendental importance in the advancement of the application of the benefits that the inmates demand… including the social reinsertion of citizens who have committed a crime,” Morales said in a press conference Monday.

The cautionary measure can be used to annul 9 sections of the penal code and drug trafficking law that limit the constitutional rights of people convicted of the gravest violent, sexual, and drug trafficking-related crimes.

These rights, which were previously guaranteed only to prisoners convicted of less severe crimes, include working outside the prison after completing a quarter of their sentence, less restrictive living arrangements after completing a third of their sentence, and conditional release on good behavior after completing two thirds of their sentence.     

“We are convinced that human beings can be rectified,” Morales told the press Monday. “We believe in social reinsertion and we are convinced that all people who have completed two thirds or a quarter of their sentence and have maintained good conduct should receive another opportunity.”

The restrictions had been put in place by the National Assembly in a 2005 penal code reform aimed at controlling the rising crime rate. At that time, an estimated 12,000 of the country`s 20,000 prisoners went on hunger strike to protest the reform, prompting the TSJ and President Chávez to question parts of the reform.

Early last month, prisoner-led hunger strikes spurred Gabriela Ramírez, the head of Venezuela`s public defenders office, which had criticized the 2005 reform, to seek the TSJ’s annulment of the controversial articles, temporarily quelling the strike. But prisoners reinitiated the strikes April 14th to demand a prompt decision on the matter.

“We are not here to ask for benefits, nor are we asking for privileges, we are here asking that our rights be fulfilled,” an inmate speaking for the hunger strikers declared to the press last week.

In the text of Morales’s decision, it is highlighted that in the 1999 Constitution, only those convicted of crimes against humanity, human rights violations, and war crimes deserve the restriction of certain privileges, specifically amnesty and impunity.
Cilia Flores, the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, opposed the decision, claiming that extortion, kidnapping, and first degree murder should be counted as crimes against humanity and those convicted of such crimes should not receive benefits.
Other legislators applauded the decision as legally “impeccable,” but feared the political costs before a public that they think favors stricter sentencing for criminals, while the Attorney General of the republic, Luisa Ortega Díaz, was totally in favor of the measure, which she said gives inmates “a right that is granted to them by the constitution,” adding that “a right cannot be cut back, only enhanced.”

In order to receive the benefits made available, prisoners must not have committed crimes in the past 10 years, not have any pending legal procedures related their case, and a team of psychologists and crime experts must determine that they will not continue committing crimes, according to article 500 of the penal code, which was unaltered Monday.

According to Morales’s decision, the restrictions added to the penal code in 2005 are “a detriment to the principle of progressivity,” and they “greatly affect the penitentiary population which seeks by way of their conduct within [prison] walls to correct their situation” by participating in constructive activities in order to gain conditional freedoms.

Such constructive activities have been expanded as part of Venezuela`s Prison Humanization Project, which was created by President Hugo Chávez in November 2007. Project director Reinaldo Hidalgo calls the program a “diagnosis of the root causes of Venezuela`s penitentiary problems,” in order to put into practice “integral and structural solutions that are long-term and take into account all factors.”

Prisoners are developing a variety of artistic, musical, and otherwise creative ways to display their personal rehabilitation in order to gain conditional freedoms. This fact was brought to light by documentary filmmaker José Manuel Romero, who just completed his new film “Voices of Freedom” on the humanization program.

However, many prisons are run-down and nearly “uninhabitable,” so the government is constructing a series of new, “humanized” prison facilities, one of which appears to be nearly complete in the western city of Coro, Romero said in an interview with

Romero said the “most important” part of Monday`s decision is its defense of due process rights for the bloated population of incarcerated citizens who have not yet been judged and are awaiting trial. Morales wrote Monday that this situation, along with the restrictions on reinsertion, represent a “clipping at the edges” of due process rights and a “type of pre-determined sentence, which presumes guilt” instead of innocence.

Humberto Prado of the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a prison watchdog group in Caracas, also commended recent advancements in the humanization of prisons, including the expansion of health and educational services through federal programs.

Even so, Venezuela must take further steps in order to fully transform its prisons in compliance with the “progressive” ideals of the 1999 constitution, Prado asserted, noting that there were 81 hunger strikes and 498 deaths as a result of prison violence in 2007.

Prado suggested that the government has not sufficiently complied with Article 272 of the constitution, which makes clear that the prisons “will be managed by a decentralized administration, with state and municipal governments in charge.”

Article 272 also mandates that “the state will guarantee a penitentiary system that assures the rehabilitation of the inmate and respect for her or his human rights,” and “will create the indispensable institutions for the post-penitentiary assistance that makes possible the social reinsertion of the inmate.”

Venezuela`s current prison population of over 22,000 marks a significant decrease from the peak of over 31,000 in 1992, a decade marked by bloody prison conflicts, police repression, and the worsening of a penitentiary “state of crisis” which grew out of the 1980s, according to a 1997 Human Rights Watch report.

It also represents an increase of 800 prisoners so far this year, evidently a result of increased arrests as part of the Caracas Security Plan implemented by the Ministry of the Interior and Justice in January.