President Hugo Chavez called again for sweeping reforms of Venezuela's troubled prisons Friday, saying the country's sluggish judicial system has prompted violence by leaving inmates languishing for years without trial.
Chavez praised his newly appointed prisons minister, Iris Varela, for preparing a list of inmates who have spent long periods in prisons without going to trial and for leading negotiations with rebellious prisoners who have staged violent protests.
"The procedures must be accelerated to impart justice," said Chavez, speaking to Varela and a group of prisoners on state television.
"I congratulate you, Iris, for the tremendous job," he added. "You are like Mother Teresa of Calcutta."
Chavez has repeatedly called for reforms of the prison system during his 12 years in power, though all sides agree conditions remain grim. In 1999, shortly after taking office, Chavez announced he had a team of soldiers and civilians working on a "Dignity Plan" to clean up the prisons, which he called "among the worst and most savage in the world."
Chavez said Friday he had recently urged Luisa Estela Morales, president of Venezuela's Supreme Court, to expedite trials of criminal suspects.
Venezuela's 30 notoriously violent prisons were designed to hold about 12,000 inmates but are packed with about 47,000, according to official figures.
Inmates frequently acquire contraband including firearms and drugs from visiting relatives or bribed prison guards. Seizures of hostages are common.
National Guard Col. Jose Betancourt Moya said federal police arrested a prison guard Friday who attempted to give an assault rifle to inmates at La Planta, a prison in the capital of Caracas.
Chavez told Valera that prisons must undergo drastic changes.
"Prisons must be centers of formation of the New Man," Chavez said, referring to revolutionary-minded citizens dedicated to the advancement of communist or socialist ideals.
On Tuesday, rebellious inmates obtained keys to several cell blocks inside a jail in the city of San Cristobal, capital of Tachira state, then fatally shot eight fellow prisoners and took four guards as hostages.
The inmates, who are demanding the transfer of 18 fellow prisoners to another lockup, released one of the hostages during negotiations with officials Wednesday.
Military Cmdr. Hector Coronado said remaining hostages were freed on Friday, ending the 3-day standoff after authorities agreed to release 26 inmates who has served their sentences. The inmates agreed to hand over numerous weapons, including three pistols, dozens of bullets and eleven knives, Coronado said.