A new report about prisons in Venezuela shows how women have begun to assume criminal leadership roles within prisons, adopting positions usually associated with the 'pranes' - prison gangs supported by the government.
In its most recent study, entitled "The Situation of Venezuela's Jailed Women," the non-governmental organization Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom) reported that women in certain detention centers had adopted criminal practices similar to 'pranes' -- which control male prisons -- as a way to guarantee their survival and "profit" from their time behind bars.
"These female laws charge a fee [from other inmates] to guarantee their safety, control the prison routine and hold parties," said Magally Huggings, coordinator of the investigation.
"Safety in prison is a duty of the State ... but it has become a business for some officials and the 'pranes' who charge their fellow prisoners to safeguard their lives," reads the report.
The investigation, which was conducted in 15 states across Venezuela, identified these female gang bosses in three prisons: the headquarters of the criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC) in Mérida; the Cabimas prison in Zulia; and the female wing of the Tocorón prison in the state of Aragua.
It also stated that women are mostly entering prisons for three crimes: drug trafficking, extortion and complicity in crimes committed by their partners.
The NGO estimates that there are approximately 3,000 women prisoners in Venezuela, representing six percent of the prison population. It also emphasizes the deplorable conditions women face in jail, including being kept for up to three years in preventive detention centers inside police stations, where detainees are only supposed to be held for up to 48 hours.
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Woeful conditions in detention centers, too few guards and other critical shortages have become standard in Venezuelan prisons. This has spiraled to create a major threat to public safety, as prisoners are now more likely to commit crimes inside prison, to escape and to engage in more violent crimes once outside.
These worsening structural problems, as well as overcrowding and procedural delays, have led to a parallel criminal economy in prisons which affect women and men alike.
"The female 'pranes' are part of the chaos existing within prisons, where women have seized power to lead gangs, especially in police stations. They were once usually accomplices to crimes or drug trafficking mules but we are now seeing women in leading criminal positions. The only place where gender equality has been achieved is in prisons," explained Huggings.
The criminal economies that began in Venezuela's prisons have grown to involve both inmates and police forces, who profit from the social, economic and political crisis facing the South American country.