The government has proposed the construction of six large prisons to end the problem of overcrowding which currently exists. However, the inmates and their representatives claim that the new prisons have been designed for physical and psychological torture.
The response to the crisis in the prisons which the cabinet of Juan Manuel Santos has proposed, is the creation of more prisons in the US style, places which break down the dignity of inmates. This is the opinion of Uldarico Florez Peña, a Human Rights defence lawyer and president of the Eduardo Umaña Mendoza Juridical Committee.
The government proposal would not be enough to solve the serious situation suffered by prisoners in this country. The problem is much deeper and derives from the poor crime policies of the state, and is linked to the public’s understanding and to the internal conflict in Colombia.
For this reason, the National Prison Movement (Movimiento Nacional Carcelario, MNC) which represents prisoners, is calling for measures which include an amnesty for those who have been imprisoned for political reasons linked to the conflict, as well as a reduction of 20% in the sentences for all prisoners.
In the last instalment on the prison crisis in Colombia, Flórez spoke to The Prisma from Bogotá about these issues, analyzing the country’s prison policy.
The government has accepted that there is a Human Rights problem in the prisons due to overcrowding and lack of medical care. In order to solve the problem it has proposed the construction of a new series of prisons. Are you satisfied with this?
We have been dealing with the prison problem for a long time, and with the fact that the government doesn’t have a policy for prisons. The crime problems in Colombia spring from the lack of opportunities, and the economic and social problems, which they have been unable to improve – so we don’t believe that building more prisons is going to solve the problem. Absolutely the opposite. What this is going to lead to is more crime, because it turns into a business.
What the state has to look at is developing a policy for rehabilitation, resocialization and work opportunities for less privileged groups. At the same time they have to look for alternative solutions to the penitentiary model they have imposed, which is prisons on the US federal prison model, the so-called Establecimientos Reclusarios de Orden Nacional (ERON).
What are they like?
These prisons are merely cubicles where they put human beings as if they were transporting chickens. The Congress of the Republic can verify this because they have seen them.
In the case of Bogotá, the establishment lies in a mountain range and the inmates are practically frozen. There is neither heating nor hot water. Inmates have to go to the toilet in full view of other people. It is a situation which is an affront to human dignity, and violates several human rights treaties. The same happens in the prison in Valledupar. These are prisons that were built with the intention of producing physical and psychological torture, and in this one in particular it is evident that conditions are extreme, because several prisoners have committed suicide under the pressure.
After living in these conditions the person that is returned to society is another criminal.
The problem of overcrowding will be solved when the state creates a crime policy which is democratic and coherent, and really transparent, together with the leaders of human rights groups and prisoners.
President Juan Manuel Santos has taken a position recognizing that a social conflict does exist in Colombia, which has been going on for 50 years. The previous government, for example , of Alvaro Uribe, used to say that there was no conflict, just a threat of terrorism. Santos’s declaration means that legally priority must be given to the Geneva Convention and the international law on human rights, and the existence of political prisoners must be recognized.
On this, the vicepresident has indicated that there weren’t any, but the fact that there is a conflict is because there are other groups in confrontation with the state. The technical definition, which is laid down in international human rights law, is that they are prisoners of war, due to the fact that they have taken up arms against the state, and were captured in combat. In line with this, one of the major points of the MNC campaign is that solutions should be promoted like those provided under international law, such as an extensive amnesty. This could open the doors to negotiation with the opposition groups.
Are the right to defence and legal guarantees respected in Colombia?
No. Along with the new prison model, the accusatorial North American model has been imposed. In this system the first thing that the public defence lawyers say to the accused is that they accept the charges against them. This means that the lawyer doesn’t make any effort to mount a good defence, which implies that the necessary right to defence does not exist in practice.
Has the Citizen’s Safety Law contributed to the overcrowding?
This law, in particular, created a new penal category, which was to criminalize protest. If people organize a demonstration, block a road, or bring civic life to a standstill they are arrested. This leads to the prisons being filled to capacity. But overcrowding also has to do with critical thinking. Intellectuals who criticize and oppose state policies, are classed as enemies of the state, terrorists and as aiding insurgent groups – and they are sentenced to prison terms. The state has a deliberate policy of filling the prisons because they see enemies everywhere. Among the 7,500 political prisoners that there are in Colombia, the majority are peasants, labourers, journalists or intellectuals, and do not belong to insurgent groups.
Don’t you think that the proposal for a 20% reduction in sntences might not be understood by public opinion?
This suggestion would be one element that could reduce overcrowding. In line with what happened during the previous eight years of Alvaro Uribe’s government, a Law of Peace and Justice was passed, which supposedly met all the standards, and people who committed extremely serious war crimes were sentenced to 4 to 8 years in prison. That was the case with General Santoyo who carried out ‘chuzadas’ (illegal phonetaps and tracking of people by the Colombian intelligence service (DAS) during Uribe’s government), and sponsored the assassination of several ASFADDES leaders (the support group for detained and disappeared people in Colombia).
This was also confessed by the paramilitaries themselves who were extradited, about how they operated a State criminal network to commit that crime. In practice, the majority of those people are now free. So it isn’t just that people who committed crimes out of necessity, who took up arms or opposed the government, are not given a 20% reduction. Public opinion won’t like it, but it is a way to give these people a chance to re-integrate in society.