Under our control - "Esos que saben"

Oscar B. Castillo

2014 - Ongoing

This work has been about incarceration and the prison system in Venezuela, has been as well about the roots, causes and consequences of the cycle of violence that engulfs the country. It has been, and is still, about hip hop and youth, about education and culture, but with time and through lot of pain and smiles, fear and celebrations, and lessons learnt with hugs and hits, I have realized that this work is about hope and dreams, it is about resilience and not giving up on them, on myself, on us as a collective goal.

This work is finally about the happiness of seeing the shadow of death vanishing from their faces as they change and get closer to crossing the line of salvation after the neverending exhausting run of today's Venezuela that is at the same time a marathon, a constant sprint, and an obstacle race. The multifacetic Venezuela with endless layers of joy, fun and tragedy, of a revolution that forgot and betrayed the ones it sworn to protect and of people keeping their heads hold high while struggling for air...for money, for food, for dignity.

For more than 6 years I have been extensively documenting the story of Free Convict, a Hip Hop collective born inside the General Penitentiary of Venezuela, a prison built for 750 inmates that had at some point 10 times its capacity. Their life inside a prison under total control of the bosses of criminal bands that with their own arsenal of weapons decided on the functioning of the prison, the unwritten strict criminal code of behavior and the lives of the inmates. They were as well the organizers of the parties, the administrators of the visits, the sponsors and coaches of the sport activities, and were even on charge of the infrastructure as the government has virtually abandoned its duties towards the prison and the care of the persons under the state's responsibility.

Through photography and with documents, interventions, collages and collaborative work this project aims to interconnect the dots of childhood, adolescense, education, exclusion, family, the nocive mirage of power and aggressive masculinity and the reality of fast death or hard work for self redemption. And how these young men living in a system that sees them as a lost cause, and with all the odds against, built their own plan for reinsertion.

A long journey surviving a prison where a bad word could literally mean 70 shots but also where solidarity is vibrant and the most important tool for survival. A long journey with their families waiting for a life signal after yet another massacre at the prison but also sharing hugs and hopes. Accompanying them back to the street and its challenges, becoming adults, becoming fathers, taking responsibility and control on their actions, surviving the machine of extrajudiciary executions and the set of accounts with their past lives with music as a reason and an excuse. Loving life more than the speed of drugs and weapons, and finally and for real, contributing on the reconstruction of Venezuela by putting their experiences and talents in front of younger generations to help them avoiding the abyss, and breaking the cycle of pulling the trigger or receiving the bullets.

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  • Members of Free Convict work painting a disco club for a friend and collaborator of the group. Jobs and plans for reinsertion are virtually non existing for most of the prisoners after incarceration period.

  • (L) Yeferson Cardenas is seen on an ID picture as a little child. (R) A document from the court with the order of incarceration for Yeferson Cardenas for the crimes of armed robbery of a public bus and illegal possesion of fire arm, it dictates the General Penitentiary of Venezuela as place for the sentence.

  • At the General Penitentiary of Venezuela fireworks are seen in the sky at the party for the celebration of the prison boss' birthday. The prison is under control of criminal bosses and authorities only control the perimeter of the facilities without access to the inside.

  • View of a collective intervention over a satellite map of the prison. The collage was done together by the photographer and the members of Free Convict with images of their daily life inside prison, memories and emotions about the incarceration experience, the violence and extreme life inside the prison, and the origins of the Free Convict initiative, a hip hop collective formed independently inside the prison by some inmates to find ways to express themselves, create and work towards pacification and reinsertion.

  • Several members of Free Convict group sleeps in Julio's room amidst tension taking over the prison due to rumors of government trying to get back the control of the PGV. The crisis hitting the country was hard on the prisoners with lack of food and resources.

  • A table full of joints and bags of marihuana, cocaine and crack, is seen on one of the alleys of prison. Drug abuse inside the jails is a common problem and is at the origin of many of the conflicts inside due to drug consumption, selling and distribution.

  • View of an intervention of one of my archive pictures showing the constant confrontation between the prisoners and the military forces for the control of the prison. The prisoners have their own arsenal that arrive to their hands with the collaboration of corrupted military authorities, these same weapons are then used by bosses to keep the control of the prison and the inmates and to combat the same military forces.

  • Ray Martinez, an inmate of General Penitentiary of Venezuela and member of Free Convict is seen with a shotgun controlling 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.

  • A view of the central area of the General Penitentiary of Venezuela 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.

  • Digital collage of fragments of internet videos showing scenes of confrontations for the control of the prisons in Venezuela. Corruption, political interests, negligence and completely negationist approach of the government to the issue turned it into a hell with constant massacres, executions,lack of work and educational programs, heavy drug consumption and distribution and an increasing control of criminal networks all over the country from the prisons.

  • In Vargas State, on Venezuelan Caribbean Coast, Ray Martinez, member and leader of Free Convict visit the sea and 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.

  • (Top) A picture of Daniel Ramirez "El As" as a young child, Daniel says he never imagined he would end up in so many problems of drugs, violence and incarceration but at 14 years old was already following the crime life with 4 different periods incarcerated since 16 years old after his brother got killed. (B) A drawing from Elio Devoz about how he sees his current situation as a former prisoner amidst the very complicated crisis in Venezuela. Hyper inflation, violence, the many extra judiciary executions are some of his main problems.

  • Luis Marquez aka "Shotman" put his hand tattooed with the Free Convict logo on the belly of his pregnant girlfriend Adriana the day after "Shotman" has been released from prison. On the last month of pregnancy the baby died inside Adriana's body and for 3 days they hang in public hospitals without been admitted or recieving any medical care, finally at a hospital the body was extracted with Adriana at the border of a total infection.

  • Members of Free Convict together with Otro Enfoque, a NGO working for 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.

  • View of the document of release excarceration for one of Daniel Ramirez' sentences. The very complicated situation in Venezuela in relation to violence, impunity economic crisis, and repression make the process of reinsertion a constant challenge for ex-prisoners left with very few formal options after serving time.

  • Hector Villavicencio (Center) is portrayed at the first moment we see him again after an incident in which the police executed his cousin Jhoiberg and almost killed Hector while sleeping at a friend's house. On the sides pictures of Junior (Right) and Humberto (Left) Hector's younger and older brothers both violently killed in previous years. For Hector the final goal is to break the chain that has kept his family in tragedy with several relatives killed and in criminal life.

  • Hector together with her mother "La Pucha" sits for a picture on a visit day at Hector's bed on a makeshift room inside the PGV prison in Venezuela. 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 socio-economic crisis. For Hector's mother the toll of these years of violence have been heavy with 2 sons killed and 1 spending 6 years in prison but in spite of that, efforts and hard work has kept them together.

  • At a psychological group therapy members of Free Convict together with collaborators of the initiative make a collective exercise for perdon and better interpersonal relations with other person close to the group and therapists interested in supporting their process for reinsertion

  • Collage with Elio Devoz and his partner Rosi are seen kissing at Elio's 29th birthday, and the first echo confirming the pregnancy of Rosi.