The physical capacity of Colombian prisons is more or less 28 to 30,000 people. There is a prison population of between 55 and 56,000. In this country it is practically unknown to receive bail or whatever mechanism to avoid a person coming to prison before their trial. So that people are brought to prison just on a charge. Of the 55,000 prisoners maybe about 60%, at least half, are charged but not sentenced. One of the problems is the slowness of the judicial process. A person may wait in prison for 3 to 5 years without knowing whether they will be found innocent or guilty.
Life is very difficult in the jails, taking into account that conditions include lack of education, recreation or possibilities to work. Colombian prisons are in the main old, built more than 50 years ago.
The cell is 3 square meters, without sanitary facilities. It is only a space to sleep. In La Modelo for example, there may be 3 or 4 prisoners in such a cell, although in other prisons it is 1or 2 prisoners per cell. La Modelo is so overcrowded that inmates don’t only sleep in the cells, but in the passages, bathrooms and in the yards. This meant that 2 years ago the Constitutional Court declared that there was an unconstitutional state in the prisons, saying that human rights and fundamental rights were not being respected in the prisons. And recently the United Nations made a similar pronouncement, that prisoners human rights are being permanently violated by the state.
Political prisoners form about 10% of the prison population. All the prisoners live together in the same place, although the paramilitary prisoners are the cause of the majority the violent acts inside the prisons. The paras are few numerically, but they enjoy power because they have connections with the foundation of the state, the army. Their objective is to control and manage the prisons.
Until about 4 years ago the paramilitaries, the social prisoners and the political prisoners used to live on the same wings in all of Colombia’s prisons. Then there were some armed clashes in which prisoners were killed, and for that reason the prisoners were separated, although not in all prisons. Prisons in some of the medium sized cities have had violent conflicts recently.
Traditionally, that is for twenty or twenty five years since, organisations have existed to improve living conditions for the prisoners. But in the last few years we political prisoners and the social prisoners have organised together to demand improvements. Four years ago we created a new form of organisation, it was called the Working Commission [lit. Work Table]. These came out of a series of mutinies and uprisings that occurred in 1997, due to the conditions of incarceration of the inmates. That year there were about 100 mutinies.
Around 167 prisons organised Working Commissions. This meant that the Government had to accept the idea of the Work Commission, where representatives of the prisoners and the government sat down together with some other institutions interested in helping and mediation. The Working Commission was institutionalised as the mechanism in which the government recognises the prisoners’ participation. The prisoners can make proposals and discuss important issues. On their side the prisoners are able to relate to the administrative branch of the prisons, or other state organisations.
There are Work Commissions in most prisons. They represent all sectors of prisoners. The Work Commissions have been very important because they allow for worries to find a channel, they try to create a peaceful medium, that is a peaceful process for the prisoners to live together and seek ways of reducing confrontations between them.
One of the things that we have tried to do away with is the charge – el cobro. When someone used to arrive at the prison they would have to pay just to enter the wing. This practice fed the existence of bands inside the prison who lived off this charge. This is still the situation in a lot of prisons, but in the bigger prisons we have been working to end these sorts of practice, although that hs not yet been completely achieved. But there are now some prisons where charging is not allowed. Nor is it permitted that inmates are killed for whatever cause, that there is no more violence as used be given out all the time.
Today it is very unusual, at least in the larger prisons, for the guards to act violently towards the prisoners. There are [however] serious complaints about what has happened in El Barrio prison which is in Tunja. There have been a thousand complaints of violence by the guards.
We are in the hands of our enemy
We are in a very particular situation, we are in our enemy’s hands. Therefore relations between the guerilla movements and the government affect us. When the talks break down, reprisals are taken against us political prisoners. We are moved to security prisons or our benefits are cut.
In general we think that this process of talks is very far from reaching results that it is supposed to be aiming for. It seems to us that the government is using the talks, or this negotiation process, in two ways. On the one hand it is using the process to get international financial support, and on the other hand it is using the talks as a manoeuvre to distract attention inside the country.
Specifically, while the government is talking of peace it is implementing economic measures that are causing difficulties for the majority of our people. The application of the neoliberal model has been so strong these last few years that it has accelerated the closing down of businesses. And now the government is giving up on its responsibility to provide health and education.
It is very difficult to speak of peace in these conditions, when the Government is directing a programme to impoverish the population. The middle classes have disappeared in the last 5 years. And this disappearance of the middle classes has influenced the development of the right and the development of paramilitarism.
Colombia is moving to the right politically. All the middle classes have believed the government’s propaganda that it is the insurgency [the guerilla movements] that is to blame for the crisis, provoking it. They do not realise that the crisis is a result of the government’s own economic policies. For example, just today there have been twenty or thirty thousand people sacked. And right now in Cali there is an occupation by the workers of public offices as a result of a privatisation that the government is trying to impose on their corporation.
Plan Colombia’s prison programme
Recently a new model of high security prisons has been constructed. They are punishment prisons.
The standard visiting regime in Colombian prisons is that there are weekly visits. They take place at weekends. Men come on Saturdays and women visit on Sundays. The people in these new high security prisons are much more isolated with visits reduced down to once every forty days, or even more isolated without even the possibility of visits.
At this moment there are three high security prisons and some more are under construction. Two more will be inaugurated, thanks to the advice of the US government. What they are trying to reach is a form of prison regime where there is no function of resocialisation of the inmate, only their punishment.
US aid has been disguised under the slogan of the fight against drugs, and anyway in the fight against drugs they [should] start on their own territory and fight against the high levels of drug consumption that they have there. What the USA does not do on its own territory they come here to do. But we know that this is not a fight against drugs, it is counterinsurgency. They are trying to stop the growth of the armed organisations and the development of the popular struggle. They would like to present it as a plan for the development of the Colombian people, whereas in reality it is a plan to prosecute an internal war.
The US and Colombian governmentsí perspective is to build high security prisons to change the model of justice in this country, in contradiction to the law and the Constitution. The proposal is revenge, not resocialisation of the prisoner.
When they built Valledupar High Security Prison they said it was to house political prisoners there. So far there are thirty or forty political prisoners who have been taken into its sub-human conditions, and we know that this number will increase. They have built two other prisons, one in Popayan and the other in Santa Rosa de Viterbo, that are just about finished. From the information we have been receiving these prisons have underground floors, where the isolation is total, built for the political prisoners. To stop the prisoners from making any protests, they will not be allowed to do any work.
There are no Working Commissions in the maximum security prisons. We are demanding that INPEC [the state prison authority] recognises Working Commissons in high security prisons.
For us it is important that these shameful new prisons are denounced. The purpose of these conditions is to crush the resistance and will of the prisoner, and to discourage his family so that they don’t visit him. These prisons are built in sections, but the isolation consists in having no contact with the outside world, not with anybody who comes from outside the prison.
We would like the prison situation in Colombia to be known in England and the rest of Europe. The United Nations and the Colombian state itself, in the form of the Constitutional Court, are saying that human rights are being violated in Colombia’s prisons. For us it is imperative and urgent that there be statements and solidarity, not only from Colombians who live outside the country, but also from people of other countries so that are prison reality becomes known. We want you to initiate campaigns to denounce the situation, to put pressure on the Colombian government to take concrete measures to improve the situation of prisoners.
Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers.