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Venezuelan Prisons: Paradise for Criminals

By: María Gabriela Díaz - Jan 24, 2014, 2:07 pm

In the rest of the world, penitentiary systems are the state’s last resource to modify antisocial behavior. Prisons are, by design, places where criminals can think about what they did, and in the long run, become a productive participant in society.

But not in Venezuela. In a country where crime meets institutional failure, prisons are born as a paradise for hardcore criminals.

San Antonio prison, on the tropical island of Margarita — as profiled in the video — shows a different reality from other confinements. Inmates are free to invite their families any time, party, relax at the pool, and engage in many other activities you could regularly do outside the “reformatory.” Compared to the human rights violations we hear of in prisons, some might argue that this is healthy for this poor souls.

So, what’s wrong?

What we see here is the biggest state failure. The only reason why we agree to live under a political and legal structure is the guarantee of security. If a state can’t even maintain order in a 300-person confinement, then the 27 million people left in the country can give up hope that Venezuela will be safe again — at least under the current regime.

Beyond the general incompetence of a 15-year government (or dictatorship, as you prefer), the ineptitude gets worst when we analyze the Ministry for the Penitentiary System, headed by Iris Varela. She talks about “a penitentiary revolution,” but all we see here is a bunch of criminals enjoying a long vacation. They don’t have any motivation whatsoever to improve their lives, much less to change their criminal behavior.

We can say that prisons in Venezuela have no claim to exist if they do not carry out their objective — but what is the objective in this context?

We normally punish for several reasons: (1) retribution, because we want criminals to pay for what they have done; (2) deterrence, because if we punish them, it’s less likely they or others will repeat the crimes; (3) incapacitation, because these people are such a threat to the safety of others, the state locks them away; (4) rehabilitation, because many believe that people can get better, and be reinserted in society.

After watching this video, which one do Venezuelan prisons strive for?

Rather than prevent or mitigate injustice, they have become a school for crime. Not only do residents continue to conduct illegal activities inside the prison, many still coordinate crimes that take place in the external world.

The reality of this situation is the complete absence and failure of the state. You never see wardens, national guards, or any sign of police force in this confinement. The only condition for this journalist to record inside the prison was that she not show all the weapons the “inmates” have to bear.

If these prisoners are armed, then who’s the boss around here?

Unlike other countries, in Venezuelan prisons the “pran” (criminal chief) is the man, and in this case, the pran is a man that answers to the name “El Conejo” (The Rabbit). Not only does he make all the decisions, he’s a personal buddy of Varela, the penitentiary minister. What a pickle.

Nonetheless, the government still pretends to make us believe that insecurity is all caused by violent TV shows. The state has thrown in the towel with criminal justice, and Venezuelans have face this decision with every homicide, kidnapping, and robbery they witness. Who knows, maybe this is the “new man” the Bolivarian revolution is talking about.

María Gabriela Díaz María Gabriela Díaz

María Gabriela Díaz reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and led the PanAm Post internship program. She has a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a focus in international affairs.