April 30, 2018
Keymer Ávila | @Keymer_Avila
The unfortunate deaths of the detainees in the cells of the Carabobo State Police once again placed the situation of persons deprived of their liberty in Venezuela on the table of public debate. A long-standing structural problem that is instrumentalized temporarily, but that is not attended to beyond some media pronouncements that try to get out of temporary scandals. A few weeks ago we talked about this topic with the prominent journalist Vanessa Davies for her program “Where are we going?” , this exchange will serve as a guide to present a brief overview of this phenomenon :
VD: Who is responsible? Because now we have heard different pronouncements from officials who say that it is not their responsibility, so who is responsible for what happened at the Policarabobo police station?
KA: The person responsible is the State, it would be necessary to know the results that the specific investigations of the case would produce in order to assign responsibilities more specifically. But this is a structural crisis that is not new and that whenever a tragedy occurs, everyone begins to discuss it. However, it does not go any further, the issue of the prison crisis has been going on for decades . For example, when we see the figures of the situation in the penitentiaries, to which one has access, which are those that come from civil society organizations-because there are no official documents from which any updated information can be extracted-, there are at least 54,730 people deprived of liberty in Venezuelan prisons, the country’s youth are there; who are between the ages of 18 and 30, where 95% are men and of these, more than 60% are barely prosecuted; that is, they are not convicted, they are people who are technically innocent and who suffer from a general overcrowding of 54%. Venezuelan jails have a capacity for 35,000 people but almost 55,000 are deposited there. The records of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP) estimate that between 1,999 and 2016 some 6,754 detainees have died from various causes.
But this context that I have described is from prisons, that is, from people who have already been formally prosecuted by the courts of the Republic.
VD: That is, is this the main problem in your opinion, overcrowding?
KA : The overcrowding is a symptom, just like what happened in the Policarabobo cell, these are just symptoms of much deeper structural crises that have to do both with legislative reforms in criminal matters (both substantive and procedural), as well as with the conception of deprivation of liberty as a solution to the various social problems we have. With the creation of the Ministry of Penitentiary Affairs, paradoxically, a crisis of which very little is talked about worsened, that of police cells.
VD: Sure, like what unfortunately happened in Carabobo
KA: In the police cells, according to the ombudsman, in 2016 some 33,000 people were deposited in the different police checkpoints . Last year the NGO ” A Window to Freedom” counted, in at least 500 police detention centers, some 45,000people deprived of liberty . According to the OVP in these cells the overcrowding is 450% . In these enclosures, dermatological and respiratory diseases proliferate, among which tuberculosis stands out; as well as cases of poisoning due to poor nutrition and even severe malnutrition. During the last 2 years, at least 18 people have died from this cause.
VD: Now, these police cells are whose responsibility?
KA: Initially the responsibility lies with the governor or the mayor. If the cell belongs to a state police, the person directly responsible is the governor because he is the chief of state police. If the cell is in a municipal police, the person in charge is the mayor.
But we must not lose sight of the fact that this is a shared responsibility, because the overcrowding in jails and police checkpoints is due, in the first place, to the fact that they are not accepting detainees in prisons and this is a direct responsibility of the central government. The consequence is that police cells fill up with detainees who should not be in these facilities, which are intended only for very short, transitory periods of detention, while the person is brought before the courts for the first time. Secondly, this is mainly due to hyperactivity on the part of the police and a criminal policy, both national and regional, of persecuting poor young people for any type of conduct, especially petty crimes, which results in the system collapsing unnecessarily, which makes it not only inefficient, but even worse, it makes it counterproductive. In this context, it is opportune to remember that the StateCarabobo is one of the main centers of operations such as the ” Car of Dracula “, the imposition of orange panties and zero tolerance against the most humble (” the people must be beaten ” is one of the slogans). Carabobo was also champion in number of deaths as a result of the OLP ( Ávila, 2017:82 ).
VD: That is to say, we have a problem -because of what it raises- and that is that they are imprisoning themselves a little lightly, without need.
KA: Sure! We cannot solve all the social, political, and economic problems with the penal remedy , this policy is precisely what has been triggering the rate of people deprived of liberty in recent years, in a dizzying way , with negative consequences for everyone.
VD: Now, Professor Ávila, at this moment in which the Prosecutor appointed by the constituent, Tarek William Saab, is proposing the prison emergency and acting as an emergency… Do you endorse this? How to highlight this? thinking about police commands .
KA: I haven’t seen the statements, because also if you follow up on everything that the political actors say you can end up with mental insanity. Unfortunately these actors end up doing only media politics. If people start to evaluate the multiple discourses, it can be easily lost, what does not exist are institutional actions. This emergency has been going on for decades and no one is attending to it.
VD: What would you do, Professor Ávila, in the police headquarters, in the cells and in the police forces?
KA : All these cases must be reviewed first, because if 60% of the accused are in prisons, if the majority of these people are technically innocent, these processes must be accelerated, the penal system cannot be used for everything, Most of the people deprived of their liberty are detained for petty crimes, including misdemeanors. When one of the few prison censuses was carried out in 2011, the majority of the prison population was for petty crimes. More than 20% were for drug retail crimes, the same for domestic violence, alternative, more effective formulas must be sought.
VD: And we understand this repressive policy that you call to review, that is, to evaluate it and try to find substitute punishment.
KA: You have to characterize why people are being detained. It is false that prisons are full of murderers or rapists; It is false that the penal system persecutes the most serious crimes; It is false that the pace of arrests in the country has contributed to reducing violence. On the contrary, we have evaluated how, as the incarceration rate has increased, homicides have also skyrocketed . Somehow institutional violence and mass arrests end up contributing to the increase in social and criminal violence .
VD: Professor Ávila, to finish, we ask you who puts the bell on the cat? because you are proposing to do a complete review that starts from politics, that is, what has led us to try to solve everything by imprisoning people, who could be sanctioned in another way, in another way.
KA: As we have already commented on other times , there are no magic solutions, when you see someone come up with a magic recipe, with the “final solution”, run away, because the one who had the final solution was Hitler, and we already saw how it ended. that story. You have to approach things from the complexity and the main thing here is to have political will and institutional will, both seem to have also been erased for a long time in the country . It is not just a problem of citizen security or the prison system, it is a generalized systemic crisis. Who has the magic solution for the economy? Who has the magic bullet for sourcing? Who has the magic solution for the different problems we suffer from? So,The first thing that there has to be is institutionality , because the crises that exist in prisons and in dungeons is a huge business; The fact that these spaces do not work or that they work in this dystopian way is functional for many, because it is an inexhaustible source of resources, of appropriation of illicit income. So the system operators themselves, who are the first beneficiaries of the current situation, are interested in it not working, because they charge so that they can eat, they charge so that they can sleep, they charge so that they can clean themselves, they charge so that they can preserve life.
In short , the current state of the prison system constitutes an enormous source of resources for its operators.
VD: Professor Ávila, thank you very much for joining us… we were talking with the criminologist, professor at the Central University of Venezuela, Keymer Ávila and well… he put his finger on the sore point. Where did this policy of imprisonment for sentences that in your opinion could be resolved another way? So the question remains in the air.
PS: I thank Eleyni Guerrero and José Pumarejo for their support with the transcription of the original interview.
Publicado originalmente en Provea.