Under our control

Oscar B. Castillo

2014 - Ongoing

Venezuelan General Penitentiary (PGV in spanish), in the central state of Guarico, was one of the biggest and most crowded prisons in the country. Built originally with the concept of farm prison to house around 750 inmates with dormitories and workshops, it was extraoficially filled with more than 5 times its capacity but some numbers have placed its population in more than 10.000 inmates at the point when the walls dividing a neighbouring prison were taken down by criminal groups inside. Authorities, as is common in Venezuelan jail system, completely lost the control inside the PGV and were the prisoners, with their own unwritten codes and their own arsenal of weapons, who controlled the prison and everything that happened inside the walls.

My long term project about causes and consequences of violence in Venezuela took me inside that prison in 2014, first as a general view of daily life in jail, after as an in-depth audiovisual research about a very rare example of an "autonumous" prison in hands of the prisoners, and then continuing with a very close and immersive following of the protagonists of these extreme reality, their families, their dreams of changing and the innitiatives that could help to improve the cycle of violence and bring back a face to many young men generally known only for being the ones that pull the trigger or the ones that recieve the bullets.

One innitiative, after months of dealing with official, unofficial, pseudo-official and para-official authorities, saw the light. A group of hip hop artists got together, and what was at the beggining only a rhymes improvisation circle became Free Convict, a Hip Hop collective and Foundation focused on reflecting on their context from the inside, expressing their reality through powerful lyrics and giving an option of life, at least a few minutes a day, to that people, as themselves, trapped in a what they called an endless labyrinth.

Free Convict, the hip hop collective, became a social experiment born in that surreal underworld where bosses bring inside drugs and weapons but also organize mother's day celebration and fund the sports teams. And something unique was happening in a Venezuela that resists to lose the hope. Their minds were changing and their actions too. And this is what this project is about, the capacities of the people to improve their context and, with support, empathy and understanding, being active players in the reconstruction of their own path.

A recording studio they smuggled inside the prison, became an oasis from where was possible to see the future from another perspective made of music, culture, education and peace. But from the doors out the prison was the same, the drugs were around, destroying minds and making debts and risks increase. The weapons, smuggled in by the military forces, were ready to defend the fortress from those very same military forces. The criminal code was rigurously ending with lives. Families were importing inside the prison the chaos that Venezuela is living all over, they brought in their desperation made of shortage, inflation, corruption and violence but also hugs and hope and the recomforting bridge to something that belongs to the outside normal world, but in Venezuela at this moment nothing is normal anymore.

After a 2 weeks battle with armed forces, the prison was taken back by the government and the Free Convict collective was torn apart, some members sent to one jail, some to another. But the dream survived, in pieces but alive. Today they are struggling but winning another battle, the one against a destiny that is supossed to sentence kids from underpriviledged areas to exclusion and failure and to feed the machine with blood and broken dreams.

In a society completely "gangrenated" by endemic violence, these cultural projects could represent the progressive way out to hundreds of young men and women that are today actively taking part in crime activities. Is important to understand that even if many particularities define each context, this situation is lived in many prisons around the world, and this project aims to be a useful and comprehensive body of work that could bring some deeper understanding about the dynamics inside prison life and how the youth live it and embrace it but also can change it and improve it, contributing through that to a collective step forward in a Venezuela, that like them, is not condemned to live trapped in a cycle of violence.

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  • Aka "Polvora" (Gun Powder) is seen inside the recording studio that Free Convict group built inside the prison. After long time dealing with all kind of para-official authorities the group was able to build a recording studio, an oasis in the prison where some time for peace, creatiivty and music could take the members away from violence and drugs.

  • Several members of Free Convict group sleeps in Terror's room. In a normal days presioners move all arond the prison and take breaks and sleep at any friends cell if want.

  • A group of prisoners from a specific area of the jail, organize in line and wait for the food to come. With a deep socio-economic crisis in Venezuela, penitentiary system has been heavily hit and prisoners are just recieving one meal per day and organized by the gang bosses.

  • View of the decoration Mickey Mouse for the birthday party of the main boss of the prison at the time known as "Ratón" (The Mouse). All around the prison the facilities where decorated with Mickey Mouse images.

  • Inside the General Penitentiary Of Venezuela, prison inates members of Free Convict together with other inmates have a free style session of improvising rhymes and rehearsing songs.

  • View of an inmate hiphop artist's bed with lyrics folder and the gun he carries inside the prison. He explains that he is living his prisoners life as a gangster with the responsabilities and tasks it implies but that he also keeps his mind on his music as a way to express more than just the gang life.

  • Aka "Shotman" talks to Ray aka "El Niche" to look for some help because has many problems with drugs and debts. Shotman's heavy drug addiction made him brake some important criminal codes bocoming then an outcast expelled from criminal world to don't get killed.

  • Hector together with her mother "La Pucha" sits for a picture on a visit day at Hector's bed on a makeshift room. For relatives of the inmates (mostly mothers and female couples) the process of follow the prison period of the relative is very hard in a country in a heavy economic crisis and with a very violent prison system.

  • Ray Martinez, an inmate of PGV, with a shotgun controls an external alley to check not military movement is taking place outside of the prison. Prisoners control all levels of life inside the jail while authorities just are at the outside of doors and walls.

  • Inmates part of the hip hop group "Free Convict" meet to discuss about the album they want to record. Ray Martinez, "El Niche" (first on the right) is the oldest one of the group and is as well the one with more experience on criminal life and problems with justice and even if still inside violence has became the most important culture promotor of the group and talks about what will be the work plan and the compromise everyone must assume.

  • Ray Martinez, Aka " El Niche" takes half a trip paper of LSD inside the eye at a party in the prison.

  • Ray "El Niche" and Elio "Devoz" work in the studio on some new songs they want to record that same night at the studio the group built inside the prison.

  • A view of the central area of the prison with some trophies for different sport final matches together with the portraits of the last gang bosses inside the prison, all killed, generally by police forces, after been released from prison.

  • From L to R: Ray, Hector and Rollon, Members of Free Convict, a hip hop group formed inside the prison, sit in top of the highest point of the jail and record a music video clip with a drone. This place used to be the bell tower of the prison's church but became the check point for gangs to control the prison and its perimeter, the bullet shots on the walls testify of the many battles between prisoners and authorities.

  • In Vargas State, on Venezuelan Caribbean Coast, Ray Martinez, member and leader of Free Convict takes some moment alone at a volunteering day for the town where doctors, nurses and NGOs bring medical assistance, medicines and recreational activities to communities at high risk amongst the deep Venezuelan socio-economic crisis.

  • Benjamin Pacheco aka "Weedja" is seen, just a couple of days after been released, back at his house with his baby that was recently born while he was still in prison. With problems of transportation, cash, violence and shortage of products, for families of the prisoners is very difficult to keep a normal schedule of visits to their relatives in prison.

  • Members of Free Convict together with a NGO of social inclusion are seen late at night visiting a group of kids from 6 to 19 years old living in the streets of Caracas under a bridge on the side of a river recieving the sewers of the whole city. Free Convict continously collaborate on different initiatives of reinsertion and inclusion bringing through their experiences in crime life and prison a message of prevention and change.

  • At a student congress about the reconstruction of Venezuela in Cristo Rey High School, a Chatolic educational center for girls mostly from high class priviledged families, students listen to members of Free Convict giving a presentation that mixes musical concert and stand-up testimonies of their lives and personal stories of crime, prison and struggles for reinsertion and how Free Convict became the strongest support.

  • Ray Martinez, Fran "Dos K", Daniel "The Ace", Jeici "La Jota" members of Free Convict sing on stage at a concert in Caracas. Even if hiphop is the music the group makes, all kind of public assist to their events to hear their experience and the process of change that took them from being in the life of violence and crime to promoters of peace, inclusion and self and collective improvement in a Venezuela hit hard by crisis and confrontation.

  • Ray Martinez, Fran "Dos K", Daniel "The Ace", Jeici "La Jota" members of Free Convict sing on stage at a concert in Caracas. Even if hiphop is the music the group makes, all kind of public assist to their events to hear their experience and the process of change that took them from being in the life of violence and crime to promoters of peace, inclusion and self and collective improvement in a Venezuela hit hard by crisis and confrontation.

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