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The Venezuelan prison: from neoliberalism to the Bolivarian revolution

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This paper aims to give an account of the main changes in the Venezuelan prison system in the last three decades. This period extends from the years of neoliberal hegemony to the period of the Bolivarian revolution, characterized by a strong commitment to redistributive policies, economic regulation and social inclusion strategies. We point out that while the Bolivarian government has adopted a social welfare model, it has continued to rely upon punitive policies that are most often associated with neoliberal governments. We map out this contradiction and discuss the impacts the current government’s penal policies have had on social relations within the prison system. Using ethnographic data we sketch out the social organization and distribution of power that develops when the state loses control of the prison. We show that prisons in Venezuela do not adhere to a disciplinary model, whereby prisoners must submit to an external administration’s intensive surveillance and control. Instead, what has developed is a form of internal governance administered by prisoners themselves.

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  1. Declarations made by the then Minister of Justice, Tareck El Aissami, in his twitter account @TareckPSUV, February 8, 2011

  2. To gather this ethnographic data researchers visited the prisons two days a week from November 2012 to June 2014, sharing in the inmates’ everyday lives and accompanying different groups of prisoners through their daily routines. Interviews with ex-convicts and prisons personnel were also conducted.

  3. The reported felony rate from 1980 was 885 per 100,000, very similar to that of the previous decade. In 1982 this rate dropped to 820, rising again in 1986 to 988. At the end of the decade the felony rate stood around 1000 for every 100,000 residents. (Ministerio de Justicia, 1980, 1989). Regarding homicides, in 1980 the rate was 12 deaths per 100,000 residents and in 1989 there were 9 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants (Ministerio de Justicia, 1980-1996).

  4. We have reviewed labor and social statistics apart from the National Institute of Statistics (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, INE, view (see also Cartay and Elías, 1991; Sabino, 1996; Viloria, 2011).

  5. The registered felonies passed from 1110/100,000 in 1988 to 1272 in 1989. The homicide rates almost doubled the following year, rising to a rate of 13/100,000 inhabitants; seven years later, they again doubled to 22 homicides for every 100,000 (Ministerio de Justicia, 1980-1996).

  6. (Source: Instituto Nacional de Estadística, consulted on May 30th, 20,144.

  7. (see: Consulted may 30, 2014).

  8. According to the Diagnóstico Sociodemográfico de la Población Penitenciaria (Consejo Superior Penitenciario, 2011), 90.5 % of those incarcerated were men; 88 % were under 40 years of age (45 % were between the ages of 18 and 25); most (68.28 %) came from the most disadvantaged classes (the two lowest social classes), and a quarter (23 %) of them were in prison for trafficking and distribution of drugs.

  9. Presence of evangelical groups within the prisons, their practices and their influence have been developed by various Latin American studies (on Brazil see Biondi, 2008)

  10. All the words that may have a sexual connotation in colloquial language are outlawed and replaced with more “neutral” ones. Milk (leche) is called instead “little cow” (vaquita); eggs (huevos) are named “yensy”; butter (mantequilla) is named “the slippery one” (la resbalosa). One prisoner told us how when he got to the prison, he was forced to write down in a notebook the “correct” name of the ingredients in his daily diet by asking the prison’s food seller.

  11. For other cases in the region discussing self-government and prison’s justice enforcement mechanisms within prisons, see Biondi (2010) for Brazil and Cerbini (2012) for Bolivia.


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The research on which this chapter is based was conducted with support from Ministerio del Poder Popular para el Servicio Penitenciario. During fieldwork we had the support of Alberto Alvarado y Amarilis Hidalgo. Andrea Chacón and Saida Rivas worked on secondary data collection.

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Correspondence to Andrés Antillano.

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Antillano, A., Pojomovsky, I., Zubillaga, V. et al. The Venezuelan prison: from neoliberalism to the Bolivarian revolution. Crime Law Soc Change 65, 195–211 (2016).

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