Venezuelan inmates release hostages at prison

AP News
Posted: Oct 25, 2011 7:17 PM
Venezuelan inmates release hostages at prison

Venezuela's top prison official said Tuesday that inmates who had seized more than 50 guards and other prison workers in the Tocuyito lockup have released the final 12 hostages, ending a tense standoff in which prisoners were demanding transfers.

Penitentiary Minister Iris Varela said the hostages were released after authorities vowed to transfer hundreds of prisoners to another facility.

"Nobody is any longer in a hostage situation," said Varela, speaking on state television. "The situation inside the prison of Tocuyito was resolved."

The prisoners took the hostages earlier this month, sparking a standoff that heightened tensions in the country's severely overcrowded prison system where contraband such as guns and drugs are commonplace.

Varela said inmates agreed to release the remaining hostages after authorities promised to return 400 prisoners to El Rodeo, where many of the rebellious prisoners had been locked up before their transfer earlier this year to Tocuyito.

Officials had moved the inmates to try to end an armed uprising at El Rodeo. But prisoners have demanded that they be returned to El Rodeo because it's closer to their families and the courts where their cases are being heard, said Carlos Nieto, a lawyer and prisons activist who heads the group Una Ventana a la Libertad.

Varela strongly condemned prison guards at Tocuyito for allegedly taking bribes and allowing inmates to obtain firearms and grenades, saying government authorities would launch an investigation into possible corruption.

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Many inmates in the country's prisons have been held for months if not years while waiting for their cases to be heard.

Inmates have aired their grievances by regularly seizing relatives of prisoners during visiting hours, and most recently, have taken prison guards and other officials as hostages.

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.

Venezuela's 30 prisons were designed to hold about 12,000 prisoners but are currently packed with about 47,000 inmates, according to official figures.