Venezuelan Government Tackles Prison Violence with Dialogue

The Venezuelan government  has reported that Yare prison in the northern state of Miranda is now under control after violent clashes between inmates last Sunday led to the deaths of 25 people. 

By Rachael Boothroyd - Correo del Orinoco

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Yare prison (archive)
Yare prison (archive)
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The Venezuelan government  has reported that Yare prison in the northern state of Miranda is now under control after violent clashes between inmates last Sunday led to the deaths of 25 people.

Venezuelan authorities and criminal investigation bodies were called  to the prison on Sunday afternoon to quell the disturbances after violence broke out between two rival gangs vying for control of the penitentiary.

Speaking on the television program the La Hojilla on Sunday evening, Venezuelan Minister for Prison Services, Iris Varela, said that there was “absolute calm in the prison”, although the atmosphere remained “tense”.

Varela has since met with inmates and their families in order to discuss Sunday´s confrontation and to solicit their help in normalizing and improving the current situation in Yare prison.

Although the minister said that the perpetrators of Sunday´s acts would be made accountable for their actions, she also highlighted that the government would not use force to deal with the problem of gang violence within the nation´s prisons.

“We haven´t used any type of intervention. The methods that were used in the past will stay in the past… We will not tire of methods which use dialogue and patience”, said the minister.

The violence at Yare has been likened to the El Rodeo prison confrontation in June last year, which saw 21 prisoners killed in clashes between rival gangs at a prison near Caracas.  The four-week conflict, in which over one thousand prisoners were held hostage, came to an end after successful negotiations between the government and inmates. At the time, the government was heavily criticized by opposition media for adopting “soft” measures to solve the crisis.

RESPECT FOR LIFE

Calling on all prisoners to respect the right to life on Monday, Varela stated that it was regrettable that Sunday´s acts of violence seemed to be treated with “indifference” by prisoners.

“I want to call on the prison population of the country… the only thing that you cannot get back is life, we are calling on you to put an end to the violence, because violence solves nothing”, she said.

The government has stated that it is now removing prisoners from the penitentiary in order to be able to carry out an inspection of the center.  Authorities have so far identified 17 of the deceased, including an inmate´s relative who also lost their life during the clashes. Nineteen other visiting family members were left injured by the violence.

PRISON REFORM

The government has often cited corruption within the country´s judicial and penitentiary systems as one of the main causes of prison violence, as well as overpopulated centers and a culture of gang violence.

In 2011 the government began a prison reform program aimed at “humanizing” the country´s prisons and increasing the amount of social programs and education available to inmates. The project prioritizes the rehabilitation of prisoners and the creation of opportunities to allow prisoners to move away from criminality as a way of life.

Current initiatives being implemented through the prison program include granting alternative forms of punishment for minor crimes, including community service, and the provision of cultural and sporting activities. Professional development, social re-integration and family participation in the rehabilitation of the prisoner are also central to the government´s new strategy.

The government has stated that it is also currently trying to speed up the processing of prisoners´ judicial cases and to reform the country´s judicial system, which continues to suffer from elitism and corruption.

“Anyone who commits (an offense) within a penitentiary facility will have to face the consequences, the law of silence is over, inside of the prison and outside. A chain of corruption still exists. It cannot be that because of a few corrupt people, we are all paying the price”, said Varela.

Despite the government´s attempts  to  reform  its  penitentiaries, Varela stated that the effects of the changes were also being obstructed by small groups within the prison system.

“There are all kinds of people in prison, there are very violent people, who are just a minority, but this very violent minority maintains control through terrorism and cruelty… This little violent group often prevents the majority, who are calm, from benefitting from this process of transformation”.

OPPOSITION CLAIMS

The issue of violence within the country´s prisons has become a hot topic in Venezuela in recent months, with Venezuela´s political opposition, the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD), having made the issue of security one of the central pillars of their election campaign.

Although the opposition has been quick to blame the government for the latest violence in Yare penitentiary, the government has pointed out that some of the most violent areas in the country are governed by opposition mayors. They also claim that Venezuela´s current prison situation is a result of opposition led neo-liberal policies implemented in the 1980s and 1990s.

“They do not have the moral authority to come out attacking us for a problem that we recognize, when we are making every human effort to counteract this problem, which is structural”, responded Varela.