The new Venezuelan minister for the prison service, Iris Varela, suggested the release of some 20,000 prisoners as part of a plan to ease overcrowding in facilities plagued by violence.

"Of the country's 50,000 prisoners, 20,000 should be out of jail, and rightly deserve to be out," Varela said in an interview with El Nacional.

Venezuelan prisons have a capacity for only 14,000 inmates, according to official figures.

"In prison there are people that do not pose danger to society, such as shoplifters who have no history of violence. They can be handled outside prison," said the official.

The job was created in mid-June, amid riots in El Rodeo prison, which left more than 30 dead, most of them prisoners.

Varela, who was installed this week by President Hugo Chavez, said red tape in the prison system and the courts keeps the prisons from operating efficiently.

But Varela declined to explain how to deal with gangs that bring weapons into the prison, which was evident in El Rodeo, where hundreds of guns, rifles and grenades were found.

Last year more than 300 inmates died in Venezuelan prison violence, according to non-governmental organizations.