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Venezuela’s Prisons Remain Out of Control Despite Government Measures

Venezuela’s Prisons Remain Out of Control Despite Government Measures

Venezuela’s Prisons Remain Out of Control Despite Government Measures

Venezuelan authorities declared victory last year after several operations to retake control of prisons in the hands of gang leaders known as pranes, but violence and a humanitarian crisis in the penitentiary system persist.

Inmates from prisons in the states of Miranda, Falcón, and Carabobo began a hunger strike on June 9, later joined by those from other penitentiaries, demanding humanitarian measures and transfers to facilities closer to their relatives or where they were previously held. 

The hunger strike came after a number of violent incidents, which Interior and Justice Minister Remigio Ceballos said constituted “a plan that is trying to alter the stability of the penitentiaries.”

SEE ALSO: Is the ‘Pran’ System in Venezuela’s Prisons Finished?

One prisoner died and nine others were injured in a riot on May 22 in the Yare II Penitentiary Center in the state of Miranda. Ceballos said on his X account that prison authorities managed to reestablish order after a fight broke out between inmates. 

Days before, on May 19, there was a shooting inside the Sabaneta prison in Zulia state. Although the incident put local residents on high alert, it was unclear whether the shots signaled an escape attempt or a fight between prisoners.

Both the hunger strikes and prison violence came after the government intervened in seven prisons controlled by pranes in raids dubbed Operation Gran Cacique Guaicaipuro in late 2023. For years, these criminal leaders dominated the prisons after the state ceded power to them as a strategy to control violence and homicides inside. 

Recent outbreaks of violence in Venezuela’s prisons could indicate that the government’s control over the penitentiary system remains in question and that a resurgence of the pranes’ power is possible. 

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Once the government claimed that it had gained control of the relevant prisons, it implemented a series of measures that could potentially have deepened the already existing crisis.

Inmates were transferred to other penitentiaries where experts say overcrowding is already acute. Several inmates were sent to prisons located far from their relatives, which generated resentment among the prison population and their families. Although there are no official figures on the prison population in Venezuela, according to reports from the non-governmental Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP), in 2022 overcrowding was at 164.19%. 

SEE ALSO: Mass Grave in Venezuela Prison Signals Authorities’ Lack of Control

Overcrowding, as well as procedural delays, are some of the main challenges faced by Venezuela’s government in the prison system. Both dynamics generate chaos, violence, and lack of control within prison walls. In addition to exacerbating overcrowding, the transfer of prisoners also results in the migration of rules and practices imposed by inmates to other prisons. 

At the end of 2010, the pran system emerged to bring order to situations that the state struggled to contain. At that time, dozens of people were killed in violent outbreaks inside the prisons every year. To reduce this, Venezuela’s government made deals with prison gang leaders. Police officials and a former prison guard consulted in the past by InSight Crime said the pranes also had a hand in transferring prisoners to other prisons or courts. 

The small outbreaks of violence that have occurred in the prisons suggest that prison violence could once again spiral out of the state’s control, and require new agreements between the regime and criminal leaders to be established. 

“I believe that the pranes are going to return because there are currently no penitentiary policies to eliminate this type of thing, and corruption continues, which is a huge problem, officials are extremely poorly paid,” said the general coordinator of an NGO that defends the human rights of inmates in Venezuela, Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom), Carlos Nieto Palma.

Featured image: Prisoners hold a sign signaling a “peaceful strike” in a prison in Sabaneta, Zulia. Credit: Distributed by the prison’s inmates.

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