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Venezuela Prison Intake Halt: Police Cells Reach Maximum Capacity

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Holding cells in Venezuelan police stations have begun to fill up a week after a government order to temporarily halt new admissions to the country's overcrowded and violent prisons.

Some police chiefs said Wednesday the lockups in their stations are either at capacity or nearly full as a result of the order for prisons to stop accepting new inmates for a month. The order came last week from President Hugo Chavez's newly appointed prisons minister, Iris Varela.

Police Chief Manuel Furelos of Caracas' Sucre district said many local police forces are running out of room in their holding cells.

"All of the municipal and state ... police are having that problem," Furelos told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Opposition politicians were also highly critical of Varela's order. Carlos Ocariz, the opposition mayor of Sucre, said in a statement that the local police station is now about 80 percent full.

"With this measure, the human rights of detainees are being violated. Viable measures should be used to deal with the prison crisis," Ocariz said.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz defended Varela's decision, saying it aims to "humanize the penitentiary system." Speaking in an interview with the private television channel Venevision, Ortega denied authorities had cut down on arrests as a result of the order.

She also said authorities had decided to set up special "chambers" to reduce crowding in the prisons, though she didn't specify how they would work.

Furelos said he believes the government may be setting up temporary holding facilities "because they know the police stations are going to break down, and we're going to have serious problems."

Police Chief Pedro Granadillo in central Carabobo state expressed similar concerns, saying there are already about 40 detainees in police holding cells built for no more than 30. He said if there is no way to send inmates to prisons soon, the police station could be overwhelmed.

Venezuela's 34 prisons were built to hold about 12,000 inmates but now are filled with about 44,000 inmates.

Chavez has repeatedly promised to fix the prison system. He decided to create a new government ministry to oversee prison issues last month, shortly after inmates staged an armed, weekslong uprising that caused seven deaths at two adjacent prisons. The uprising, which pitted rebellious prisoners against troops, ended after a 27-day standoff.

Chavez reiterated his commitment to overhauling the prison system before leaving for Cuba on Saturday to undergo his second round of cancer treatment. He told Varela that one of her main objectives should be dismantling "prison mafias."

The country's prisons have suffered repeated violent outbursts as rival gangs fight for control of cellblocks and sell weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt prison guards.

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

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