Globe, Human Rights, Latin America, Politiks

Colombian Prisons (II)… Hell’s waiting room

In these places of reclusion a serious humanitarian situation exists. Prisoners who die through lack of medical attention or from infections that spread due to overcrowding, are just the tip of the iceberg. Those who are imprisoned for political reasons claim to have been given powdered glass in their food or to have been thrown out of windows.

Miriam Valero

In Colombian prisons the words Human Rights appear to have no meaning. A prisoner leaves behind his dignity and probably also his health, when he crosses the frontier between his previous life and his future sentence behind bars in one of the country’s prisons.

Both the prisoners and the United Nations have exposed the conditions in which they live: overcrowding, the spread of infections, denial of medical treatment, violence and limited access to water, among other abuses. Mistreatment that sometimes ends with the death or suicide of some of them. For those who are imprisoned for political reasons related to the Colombian conflict, the situation is worse. Cases have been reported of them being given food containing powdered glass, as well as prisoners who have been denied medical assistance after being captured during combat.

All these facts – which have led the prisoners to organize a protest – were described to The Prisma from Bogotá by Uldarico Flórez Peña, a human rights defence lawyer and president of the Fundación Brigada Jurídica Eduardo Umaña Mendoza (FBJEUM), an institution which defends the rights of prisoners.

What is the situation for prisoners in Colombia?

It is very serious. In the debate which took place in the Congress of the Republic on this subject, it was shown that the problem of overcrowding in prisons is at quite a high level. A situation which leads to a systematic weakening of the rights of people who have been deprived of their freedomn, and through which the Colombian state is not meeting its treaty obligations, human rights conventions or what in our country is known as the Bloque de Constitutionalidad (a set of supranational legal principles that exist in various countries of Latin America.

They are not part of the Constitution but are used to guide the formulation of internal laws).

What are the reasons for overcrowding?

Historically the problem of prisons in Colombia is that there is no official policy to deal with the problem of overcrowding. The legislative apparatus is increasing prison terms more and more, and creating new offences. This means that the prisons are overflowing. If they are built , let’s say for 100, 200 or 300 people, we find there are 3,000 or 4,000. In fact, the trade unions of the Instituto Penitenciario y Carcelario (INPEC), who also suffer from this situation, had to organize a protest to demand that no more prisoners be sent, as adequate conditons do not exist to house them.

The prisoners live in degrading conditions. The Colombian Constitutional Court, in a landmark decision, ruled that the conditions in Colombian prisons are unconstitutional, and gave the state a limited period in which to solve the problem. Over 10 years later nothing has been done.

The lack of medical attention has also been exposed

This is another critical problem. In the most important prisons like La Picota, La Modelo or Valledupar, there isn’t even a doctor to attend to the medical problems of the inmates. Many of the prisoners who were captured during fighting are not given medical care, which infringes their universal human rights. People with infectious or contagious illnesses live in close proximity with other prisoners and are not given the specialized treatment they require.

There are no medicines or basic first aid. During the protest three prisoners died in La Picota due to incompetence, negligence and lack of due care by INPEC.

As part of the national protest some of the prisoners are on hunger strike, how are they after 10 days without taking food?

This form of protest is a refusal to accept food supplied by INPEC because in Valledupar they gave them food containing powdered glass, with the criminal intention of eliminating a number of political prisoners. These prisoners are afraid that the food they are given could be a threat to their lives. But the hunger strike is not permanent, it happens at intervals in each of the prisons in turn.

How is the protest going? Have any incidents been recorded?

Yes. Last week in the prison in Cómbita (Boyacá), members of INPEC arrived and attacked the Human Rights Committee and the protest organizers. It was from this prison that what is now known as the National Prisoners Movement was formed.

How were they attacked, exactly?

One of the elite prison guard units went into the prision, and without any discussion and in contravention of right to peaceful protest under the National Constitution, they injured several inmates and protest leaders. They were taken away on stretchers, and we have no information about where they are.

The FBJEUM has already made a complaint to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the World Organization against Torture, the Public Prosecutor and the Defender of Public Rights, as well as to the director of INPEC.

What is very striking is that not even 10 days have passed since the debate in the Congress of the Republic on the prison situation, and the INPEC Guard have already violently attacked the organisers of the protest. The same has been happening in other prisons.

Who has the complaint been made against?

The charge is against the INPEC Guard who have been beating and torturing people in prisons without any explanation. Those who attacked the prison in Cómbita are a specialist squad within the INPEC called the GRIL. They made this violent attack precisely because people have limited rights and freedoms and only have their voices to protest with.

What are the demands the prisoners are fighting for?

The movement has spread to almost all the prisons in the country. They have put a series of demands, including a 20% reduction in sentences for all prisoners, the right to family visits, no extradition, as well as a reform of the code of prisons and penitentiaries. The movement is extensive because they have put forward other proposals, such as an amnesty for all political prisoners, who are presently serving 40 or 50 year sentences. This demand is due to the fact that the government never at any time wanted to accept one-for-one prisoner exchanges, which were provided for in international human rights law, and also because the insurgent groups have freed every one of the people they were holding for political reasons.

Next week part 3: death, mistreatment and forgetting.

(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: ondastropicais@yahoo.co.uk)

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