SAN JUAN DE LOS MORROS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s prisons, which are rife with violence, weapons, drugs and criminality, have been placed under a new, tightly regulated regime, says the nation’s leftist government.
The recent move in October 2016 to empty out the General Penitentiary of Venezuela (PGV) in the north-central state of Guarico, which had been one of the nation’s most dangerous prisons, is one of the latest blows the Correctional Services Ministry (MPPSP) has dealt to the old system.
That maximum-security prison, which formerly housed 5,000 inmates and appeared like a normal penitentiary from the outside, contained restaurants, a bakery, a manicure service, pet stores, drugs, motorcycles, a nightclub, a gym, a children’s playground and an arsenal of weapons, all of which flowed inside while guards turned a blind eye.
Like in many of the country’s 96 penitentiaries, the rules were handed down by a “pran,” a convict who controlled food distribution, the sale of drugs and weapons, the renting of the cells and collection of a “causa,” or life tax, from the inmates.
The MPPSP, a ministry reorganized in 2011 by late leftist President Hugo Chavez after a massive prison riot outside Caracas, says it is now seeking to transform the country’s penitentiaries after inaction during the last 18 years of Chavismo.
Iris Varela, a radical Chavista loyalist, claims that she has installed a rigorous new regime in 83 prisons and closed six others.
Under the new rules, which govern two-thirds of prisoners in government-run penitentiaries, inmates are awoken at 5:30 am and carry out a series of tasks throughout the day before the lights are turned out at 9 pm.
Varela claims the new prisons have mobile phone jammers, scanners at the entrances that prevent the entry of weapons, drugs, electronic equipment and cellphones, and strict visitation restrictions.
Meanwhile, there are widespread claims of inmates starving to death in Venezuela's prisons as the country reels from severe economic depression due to extreme economic mismanagement.
And 4 months ago at the Táchira Detention Center, 2 inmates were reportedly eaten by fellow inmates. The mutiny at the prison started on September 8, when eight visitors and two guards were taken hostage. Prisoners say they revolted due to extreme overcrowding in the jail - 350 were crammed into a prison with capacity for just 120.