Families of jailed Venezuelans have claimed prison officials are extorting them to allow their relatives to attend court hearings, exacerbating the country’s already severe judicial backlog.

In early March, a group of prisoners rioted over poor conditions inside a police detention center in the Carabobo province, northern Venezuela. Speaking to press outside the jail, relatives of the inmates described a range of abuses allegedly committed by prison guards, including beatings and theft, but also said they had been charged extortion fees so that their loved ones would be driven to court.

SEE ALSO: Riots and Violence Overwhelm Venezuela’s Police Stations

“They asked me for gasoline. If I don’t have fuel, they ask me to pay $5 or $10. If I don’t, they don’t take the boy to court. I have to pay up,” the relative of one prisoner told La Patilla.

Last year, similar reports of prison extortion emerged when relatives of inmates in a Caracas jail said prison officials were charging them up to $20 for their loved ones to attend a court hearing or $5 to simply bring them some food. Back in 2019, relatives of inmates jailed in the Monagas province said they had paid between $10 to $20 to secure transport for family members attending court hearings.

The allegations of prison extortion come amid continuing turmoil in Venezuela’s overcrowded jails, beset by corruption and where violence and disease have soared during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The alleged extortion of inmates by prison officials has further aggravated Venezuela’s chronic judicial delays and continued overcrowding inside the country’s detention centers.

Over 70 percent of inmates housed in Venezuela’s prison system have not been convicted, according to a recent report by Venezuelan civil-society organization CIVILIS Derechos Humanos (CIVILIS Human Rights). Some detainees find themselves stuck in temporary police holding cells for up to three years while awaiting transfer to a formal prison, according to relatives of jailed Venezuelans who spoke to InSight Crime on the condition on anonymity.

SEE ALSO: Deaths Inside Venezuelan Prisons Doubled During Pandemic

Some prison officials have cashed in on the desperation, extorting inmates seeking to resolve their legal situation. According to a recent report by Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Liberty), a Venezuelan NGO, more than 75 percent of over 300 police and military holding centers studied by the organization reported cases of prisoners being extorted by officials in 2021.

Meagre salaries for police and military officials have made it all the more tempting for guards to exploit the crisis inside Venezuelan jails. Meanwhile, a lack of government policies aimed at reducing prison overcrowding and judicial delays has left the issue largely unaddressed.

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