Globe, Human Rights, Latin America, Politiks

The unknown and dark side of Colombian prisons (I)

Inmates and human rights activists describe the living conditions of the country’s 111,000 prisoners as ‘inhuman’. To put an end to the situation, inmates in 21 prisons are taking part in hunger strikes and peaceful protests.

Miriam Valero

In Colombia, a large proportion of detainees inhabiting the country’s 142 prisons live in overcrowded and squalid conditions. According to prisoners’ reports, they are “submitted to degrading conditions and have our human rights systematically violated. We are treated like things, and permanently suffer from abuses of power from the State”.

It is estimated that since 2002, from the beginning of Alvaro Uribe’s presidency, and continuing after 2010 with Juan Manuel Santos’ presidency, the number of prisoners in the country has doubled. According to the Eduardo Umaña Mendoza Legal Foundation, defender of prisoners’ rights, this steep rise has reached such a level that some of the country’s prisons are overcrowded by 400%,.

There have been reports of some prisoners sleeping in corridors and stairwells. With inmates living in extremely overcrowded conditions and sharing confined space;, the spread of disease is rife and prisoners’ health is likely to worsen.

Inmates’ reports tell of how they live in the institutions without any guarantee of their health, with unhygienic conditions, a lack of food, and restricted access to water. At Valledupar Prison for example, despite high temperatures the inmates have access to water for just five minutes each day.

If a prisoner at a Colombian prison becomes ill, they do not have access to medical facilities. In a parliamentary debate on the 15th August on the prison situation in the country, congresswoman Gloria Stella Diaz of the Mira Movement (Movimiento Mira) confirmed that “health is the most violated fundamental right in prisons”.

Miguel Angel Beltrán

“At Pedregal and Bellavista prisons there are 500 inmates awaiting medical procedures and 300 are on the waiting list for medicines. At Modelo prison there are units with four toilets for 500 inmates” she said. Cases have also been reported of seriously ill prisoners in ‘La Picota’ in Bogota.

A threat

Miguel Ángel Beltrán, who was sent to prison after being persecuted for political reasons and was later found to be innocent, described the conditions: “There would be 6 people living in a 5 by 6 metres cell. Luckily, I didn’t get any serious illnesses while I was there, but I could see some of my prison mates were not receiving the medical attention they needed”.

The Colombian government has accepted the country is experiencing a crisis in prison overcrowding and has proposed building new centres.

However, prisons representatives, inmates, and some members of parliament signal that the prison problem is structural, and goes far beyond issues of overcrowding and lack of hygiene.

Along with the issues mentioned above, they highlighted problem areas in legal policy and the country’s criminal system.

Senator Carlos Baena, of the Mira Movement says “The country is facing an imminent threat against public and social order, stemming from the abysmal mismanagement of the prisons, which has come about due to a lack of political will, administrative negligence, corruption, a slow and weak legal system, and a lack of policy for the rehabilitation of prisoners”.

“For many years the government has only been concerned with filling up the prisons. They now resemble chicken pens for human beings, with worse conditions. They are there to incarcerate, and not rehabilitate”.

The Eduardo Umaña Mendoza Legal Foundation adds that today’s situation is also the result of a lack of preventative measures, because the government criminal policy is repressive rather than preventative.

Many of the inmates, especially those imprisoned because of their political involvement in the Colombian conflict, have seen their right to legal and judicial representation taken away during their time in prison.

According to lawyers and inmates the authorities do not allow prisoners visits from their lawyers.

In addition, the prisoners are put in cells or units with those who have committed different offences, not taking into account the crimes committed or indeed whether they are yet to be convicted. This puts inmates at risk of violence.

The inmates go on strike

Because of this, the National Prisons Movement started National Peaceful Protest Day in August, a strike for prisoners to highlight the social and humanitarian emergency happening in prisons. The petition has also been raised in parliament by parties including the Mira Movement.

The inmates have also called for a National Board of Agreement at which prisoners’ spokespersons are present to defend the rights of the inmates and solve issues such as overcrowding and lack of hygiene.

El senador Carlos Baena.

A total of 21 prisons are participating in the strike. Some prisoners will be on a hunger strike from the 2nd of August, carrying out other peaceful protests and suspending activities until the situation is resolved.

Throughout this time striking prisoners will not attend educational tasks or recounts, and will not receive any messages (save those granting freedom) until they receive assurance that this dire situation will be improved.

(Next week, Part 2: “The anteroom of Hell”)

(Translated by Claudia Rennie – Email:

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