Inside prison run by inmates – from rules to violence and hip-hop

A Venezuelan photographer has spent years visiting a jail in his home country that was run by the inmates themselves.

Oscar Castillo had spent over seven years visiting the General Penitentiary of Venezuela, which is a prison capable of holding 750 inmates but at one point housed over 10 times that.

Castillo, 40, was given access by the bosses of the prison after getting on good terms with them through constant communication.

“It was abandoned by the official authorities but the prisoners were doing what they could to take care of the infrastructure and adapt it for their own needs and resources,” Castillo told the Daily Star.

“It was a kind of constantly changing shantytown. A town closed between walls. Bosses had money so some places were kind of luxury but of limited access for common prisoners, some other places were in ruins without toilets or beds and some general areas like sport facilities were taken care of and giving prisoners dots of well being and useful spaces.

“It was mostly a dark dungeon, hot and rough, and always crowded, but it is amazing how these abandoned spots had many times decoration and joyful motives that tried to make kids and visitors forget they were in that hellish place.”

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Castillo was led to the prison due to a fascination in trying to understand the different elements, lives, actions and emotions that intersect into the manifestations of violence in Venezuela.

He wanted to gain an insight into how the people lived inside the prison following working on a documentary, which led to him becoming interested in following a hip hop collective called Free Convict.

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The group, which was formed in the prison, became the focus of his forthcoming book, ESOS QUE SABEN, which is currently being funded on Kickstarter, along with other aspects of prison life and their dreams for the future.

Castillo said: “Free Convict as a group and as individuals have been changing the way they relate to life, looking to solve problems in a productive way, leaving the weapons and the violence behind and sharing their experience with a younger generation surrounded by violence and an example of problems solved by blood and fire.

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“Little by little they have been changing that, first in themselves and then with their communities.”

The prison was taken over gradually from the government throughout 2005 to 2010 when gangs slowly took control of floors before complete buildings were under their control.

They used weapons and showed no mercy as they erased all adversaries to eventually unify and dominate the whole prison.

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Although a prison run by the inmates sounds like it could be very chaotic, bosses put in place a code for every person to follow.

Castillo said: “To keep some order among hundreds of men with the hardest backgrounds, the iron fist was the method. A code that didn't allow any mistake, the rules were the first thing to learn.

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“As they said in prison, as soon as you arrive you have, like a newborn baby, to learn how to talk and to learn how to walk in the middle of thugs. A bad word can be punished with life.

“But as everything goes from one extreme to the other, if you followed the unwritten code, your life inside was easier and you didn't have to worry too much about your day after day. The code was crazy and ruthless and almost enough to keep everyone following.”

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Describing life being in the prison, Castillo saw more moments of calm than anything else but he had heard of executions and curfews put in place by bosses.

He also heard of extreme incidents where prisoners lost a hand, without witnessing the action take place but seeing the consequences.

The prison was eventually taken back by the government in 2017.

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