Venezuelan inmates hold 12 hostages at prison

AP News
Posted: Oct 25, 2011 1:25 AM
Venezuelan inmates hold 12 hostages at prison

Prison inmates freed a new group of hostages but were still holding 12 prison employees captive to press for demands including the transfer of some inmates to other lockups, Venezuelan authorities said.

Inmates at Tocuyito prison in north-central Venezuela released 15 more hostages on Monday, regional prison administrator Reinaldo Rangel said. He told the state radio station YYKE Mundial on Monday night that the authorities were continuing talks with the inmates to convince them to free the remaining 12, most of whom are women.

The standoff began in mid-October and has once again heightened tensions in a severely overcrowded prison system where guns and drugs are commonplace and where protesting inmates have periodically seized hostages as bargaining chips.

"What we've asked is for them to put aside that position," Rangel said in earlier comments posted on the Venezuelan private news website Noticias24. "They should free them and turn over their weapons."

The prisoners took more than 50 guards and other prison workers hostage earlier this month. Rangel first confirmed the release of 25 hostages on Sunday in the most detailed remarks about the event from a government official since activists reported the hostages seized on Oct. 14 near the city of Valencia.

Inmates released the captives over the weekend after authorities agreed to transfer 30 prisoners to other facilities, Rangel said. The inmates have demanded improved prison conditions and the transfer of about 50 inmates to lockups closer to their families and the courts where their cases are being heard, said Carlos Nieto, a lawyer and prisoner rights advocate who heads the group Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom).

Milena Mendoza said she and a dozen other relatives of hostages have been nervously waiting outside the prison every day for any news about those inside. She said her 21-year-old daughter, a computer teacher, had just started giving classes in the prison.

"I only leave to go eat nearby, and then I come back," Mendoza told The Associated Press by telephone. "With this sort of anguish, who can sleep?"

Mendoza, 39, said her daughter managed to call her two days ago using a phone inside the prison, and told her she was worn out and had no way to bathe.

"She was hungry because food was scarce," said Mendoza, who said she and other relatives were standing under intense sunshine outside the prison on Monday. It wasn't immediately clear whether her daughter was among those freed later Monday.

Many inmates in the country's prisons have been held for months if not years while waiting for their cases to be heard. Nieto told the AP that the cases of some inmates in Tocuyito have been delayed because courts far from the prison are hearing them.

Across the country, inmates have regularly seized relatives of prisoners during visiting hours, and most recently, have taken prison guards and other officials as hostages.

In May, inmates took the warden and 14 other officers hostage at a Caracas prison, holding them for more than a day before freeing them after authorities pledged to investigate complaints that several inmates had been abused.

President Hugo Chavez's government has recognized prison crowding as a problem, and a newly appointed prisons minister, Iris Varela, has pledged to come up with solutions. The countries' more than 30 prisons were designed to hold about 12,000 prisoners but are currently packed with about 47,000 inmates, according to official figures.

A bloody prison uprising in June focused new attention on the country's prison problems. That rebellion exploded after thousands of troops stormed one of two adjacent prisons seeking to disarm inmates days after a riot killed 22 people. The raid set off gunfights between troops and inmates that killed one prisoner and two soldiers.

The 27-day standoff ended after negotiations between officials and inmates.

Last year, 476 people died and 967 were injured in prison violence, according to figures compiled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Nieto was visiting Washington this week to urge the commission to put pressure on Venezuela to urgently address its prison problems, which he said are "getting worse all the time."