Torture is so commonplace in the jails that a 2008 study by Colombia’s Committee in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners showed that when asked if the inmates had been tortured at least once during their jail time, 54% answered they had and 46% did not answer the question at all. Eighty-six percent said that they had experienced psychological torture, including threats to relatives and simulated executions.
Conditions in Colombian prisons should be of special concern for residents and citizens of the United States. In 2000, the US Ambassador signed an agreement with the Colombian Minister of the Interior named the Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System (PICPS). Under the PICPS, the US would help build a series of new prisons to create a “New Penitentiary Culture”. This effort has been funded and advised via USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and the US Bureau of Prisons.
One reason given for this program was to alleviate overcrowding. However, rates of arrests went up far more quickly than new jails and the number of political arrests that were later thrown out of court for lack of evidence rose by 300% (with most of the accused spending two to three years in jail before release). This does not include political prisoners who have been convicted for their activities. The estimated number of political prisoners has grown from 7,200 to over 10,000 since 2008.
New jail construction has been less about relieving overcrowding than preparing for a much larger prison population as a result of social and economic disruption and punishing political dissent. With passage of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement many observers fear that poverty rates will worsen and crimes of desperation and prison populations will increase. Unfortunately, US and Colombian authorities see the “New Penitentiary Culture” as a model and are seeking to replicate it in Central America (where in Honduras the US has announced a new “Model Penitentiary” program) and Mexico (where the US is funding construction of 16 new federal prisons).
According to Tulio Murillo Avila, who is a national spokesperson for the Movimiento Nacional Carcelario (National Movement in the Jail),
The first prison constructed with US funding and advice was La Tramacúa, located in the city of Valledupar. Although a “modern” facility built on the basis of US designs, it has become infamous for its terrible conditions. La Tramacúa has been found on at least three occasions (by agencies from the United Nations and the Department of César, as well as by an internatinoal NGO) to be serving food tainted with fecal matter. Sanitary facilities are rarely working and inmates are forced to relieve themselves in buckets and plastic bags which are “disposed of” by being thrown over prison walls.
In 2010, Raquel Mogollón, a member of the Alliance for Global Justice “Colombia Watch” working group, had the chance to visit La Tramacúa with a delegation of Colombian legislators and international human rights defenders. According to Mogollón,
The prisoners have formulated an additional five basic demands:
- Declare a Social and Humanitarian Emergency in Colombian jails;
- Regionalize prisoners in institutions near their families;
- Reduce all sentences by 20% and increase the use of alternative sentences such as home detention;
- Resolve problems of health, sanitation and overcrowding;
- End the extradition of prisoners to foreign countries (which is interfering with Colombia’s internal peace process and in ongoing investigations of links between paramilitary death squads and Colombian politicians).
Lazos also reported that on August 23,
Mogollón tells of a particularly poignant encounter she had while visiting inside La Tramacúa:
Here are some things that you can do.
- Cut and paste the follwing sample in Spanish or write your own message and email it to the following Colombian, United Nations and US State Department Officials, and to AfGJ, at:
Todo el mundo esta observando lo que pasa en los penitenciarios en Colombia. Sabemos del hacinamiento; que las cárceles no están proviendo a sus internos las necesidades básicas como comida y agua limpia y servicio desalud; que violencia en contra de las presas y los presos es epidémico; que los servicios de resocialización son limitados y en vez se favorecen las políticas de castigo y negligencia. Yo apoyo a los y las huelgistas de las cárceles colombianas que exigen condiciones mejores y especialmente apoyo la declaración de Estado de Emergencia Carcelaria y el establecimiento de una Mesa Nacional de Concertación que incluye portavoces para las presas y los presos con la meta de resolver esta situación.
The whole world is watching what is taking place in Colombian prisons. We know that Colombian prisons are overcrowded; that many prisons are not providing their inmates with basic necessities such as clean food and water and basic health care; that violence against prisoners is epidemic; that rehabilitation services are severely limited in favor of policies of punishment and neglect. I support Colombia’s striking prisoners in demanding better conditions and, especially, the declaration of a State of Emergency in the Colombian penal system and the establishment of a National Board of Consultation, including spokespersons for the prisoners, to remedy this situation.
- Call or fax the Colombian Embassy in Washington, DC, using the above sample or your own words. They can be reached at 202-387-8388 or you can send them a fax at 202-232-8643.
- There’s a very good chance that your Representative and Senators in the US Congress do not even know about the US-sponsored PICPS and the “New Penitentiary Culture”. We encourage you to set up a visit with your elected representatives to educate them about this issue and to demand that they use their influence to call on the Colombian government to take immediate action to improve conditions in the prisons and to call for a Congressional investigation of the PICPS and the conditions it has lead to in prisons such as La Tramacúa. We must also ask them to intervene to stop this model from being further imported into Central America and Mexico. If you would be willing to organize such a visit, please send an email to James@afgj.org to receive background material for your visit.