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Report: Venezuela could release up to 40% of its prisoners

By the CNN Wire Staff
Smoke covers Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela during a prison standoff between inmates and the national guard in July.
Smoke covers Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela during a prison standoff between inmates and the national guard in July.
  • Iris Varela is the country's new prisons minister
  • She tells the El Nacional newspaper that 20,000 of Venezuela's 50,000 inmates should be released
  • The country's prisons are overcrowded and violence is not uncommon
  • A 27-day standoff between troops and prisoners at the Rodeo II prison ended last month

(CNN) -- Venezuela's new prisons minister believes that 40% of the country's inmates do not belong behind bars, the El Nacional newspaper reported.

The newspaper published an interview with Iris Varela on Sunday, in which she outlined her vision to fix the country's overcrowded prison system.

"Of the country's 50,000 prisoners, 20,000 should be out of jail," she told El Nacional.

"There are people in prisons who do not pose a danger to society," she said. "(They) can pay for their crimes outside of prison."

Officials will begin work this week determining which of the country's inmates should be allowed to go, though residents can be sure authorities will not let "wolves loose on the streets," the newspaper reported Varela as saying.

Varela became head of the country's correctional services last month, partly in response to a prison standoff that garnered worldwide attention.

Inmates at the Rodeo II prison in Venezuela, who had been in a 27-day standoff with the national guard, abandoned the building and turned themselves over to authorities July 13.

The government claimed that a small group of prisoners at the Rodeo II prison -- about 50 out of 1,000 -- were hostile to the national guard and gave resistance to any raid, basically keeping the other inmates captive. Authorities successfully raided the neighboring Rodeo I prison, where they seized dozens of weapons, as well as drugs and cell phones.

At least 25 people died at the prison complex, located in the northern state of Miranda.

Violence in overcrowded Venezuelan prisons is not uncommon.

According to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a watchdog group, 124 people died in Venezuelan prisons during the first three months of this year. That figure does not include the latest outbreak of violence and represents a 22% increase over the 102 people who died during the same period a year ago, the group said.

"You have a jail made for 600 people, but 2,000 people are there. And on visiting day, another 2,000 people arrive," Varela told El Nacional. "It's crazy and we're going to fix it."