The new state institution will be dedicated to working together with families and communities to humanize prisons and address the root causes that lead to imprisonment.
Moving ahead with prison reforms in the wake of recent tumult, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appointed congresswoman Iris Varela to head the newly created Ministry of Penitentiary Services.
The announcement was made last Tuesday morning during the broadcast of the program Todo Venezuela on state television.
The new ministry, Chavez informed via telephone, will be charged with guaranteeing the health and education of incarcerated populations as well as ensuring safe and appropriate conditions for inmates.
“It’s a very large debt that we have with the penitentiary system. I would say it’s a stain on our government”, Chavez declared during the program.
Recent inmate riots in the Rodeo prison outside of Caracas thrust the state of Venezuela’s penitentiary system into the national and international spotlight. Plagued by gang activity, drug trafﬁcking and violence, many prisons in the country have been overrun with the corruption of a blighted system.
Negligence and apathy on the part of previous governments permitted the culture to grow while the progressive values of the Chavez administration have attempted to humanize the penitentiaries.
Since coming to power 12 years ago, Chavez and his supporters have implemented social programs in prisons with music, sports, and educational activities never before available for inmates.
In 1999, prisoners’ rights were formally written into the nation’s constitution for the ﬁrst time in Venezuela’s history and more recently, in April, the country’s highest legislative body, the National Assembly, passed a law designed to revamp the country’s prisons.
The new law seeks to improve prisoner rehabilitation and guarantee humane conditions for inmates based on strict adherence to the principles of human rights as enshrined in the constitution.
President Chavez’s announcement on Tuesday morning continues with this wave of reforms by creating a new cabinet position to deal directly with the problem of overcrowding, violence and internal corruption.
According to the head of state, the nation’s prison system should function as training centers for the creation of “the new man”.
“Community work can be done. We need humanistic laws to create real humanism. We have to create just laws and abide by them instead of submitting to the blackmail of the bourgeoisie and the old culture that we carry inside ourselves”, Chavez said.
The new Minister of Penitentiary Services, Iris Varela, said that she is ready to begin the task of devising changes and reconstructing the nation’s penitentiaries.
“I’m a revolutionary who, very humbly, intends to carry out this work. I’m here to accept the commitment and you can be sure that I will not let you [the people] down”, she afﬁrmed.
One of the objectives of the Ministry, Varela said, will be to identify crimes of lesser severity in order to promote alternative sentences and thereby lessen pressure on the prison population.
“Not all crimes necessarily require prison sentences. Depending on the nature of the crime, mechanisms can be created so that the person who commits some type of transgression does their time through supervised community work. All of these options need to be evaluated and studied”, she explained.
Part of this strategy requires reviewing cases of current inmates who may have been unjustly incarcerated due to administrative errors or who have already served their time but still ﬁnd themselves among the incarcerated population.
Varela invited inmates and family members to organize themselves into action groups to bring cases to light which may result in the commutation of sentences.
“I’m sure that through an exhaustive review, a great percentage of people are going to be free because they are victims of a bureaucratic system”, the new minister said.
Formerly a congresswoman from the Andean state of Tachira, Varela intends to meet immediately with the nation’s Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz as well as the President of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, Luisa Estella Morales, to determine a strategic plan for the ministry.
Both Diaz and Morales welcomed the selection of Varela for the position and expressed their eagerness to work with the new minister to resolve the problems affecting the prison system.
“This is good news because we’ve been debating this topic of what measures need to be taken”, Morales told VTV, reminding viewers that over the past month the government had already begun establishing reforms.
“From June 21 to July 21, thirtysix initiatives have been implemented such as in cases where a youth commits a minor crime for which he/she should not be in prison”, explained the Supreme Court Justice.
Varela also met with Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami on Tuesday to discuss the new institution and propose a plan for the creation of reforms.