by James Jordan afgj.org
Strikes involving thousands of prisoners at 21 institutions continue in Colombia against the humanitarian crisis in the jails.
is rampant and in many prisons the availability of potable water and
clean, unspoiled food is severely restricted. There is little adequate
health care, especially for the seriously ill. For instance, José
Lamprea is a prisoner whose four year sentence is in danger of turning
into a death penalty. Confined to a wheel chair by what may be bone
cancer, he has still not received medical treatement that was court
ordered in November, 2011.
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
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
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),
Jail over-population…is not a new thing,
being found today at a national level of 47%, due to the policies of
punishment…in the new centers of incarcerations constructed under the
influence of the US Bureau of Prisons. In some jails the overcrowding
has reached 400%.
In a video-recorded interview
Bellavista Jail in Medellín
with the Colombian media outlet RPASUR (Western Colombia Alternative Press Network- www.rpasur.com
), one prisoner representative reported that, “The gravest are the
problems with hygiene in the jails and overcrowding. Colombia has a
capacity for 78,000 prisoners. We find in Colombia more than 130,000
Almost one-third of the incarcerated are
unconvicted persons awaiting trial who are mixed in with the general
population and are often subjected to processes that take years before a
verdict is rendered.
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,
…Inmates say they’re getting access to
water about ten minutes a day. However, in the cells there is
water…disgusting, dirty water on the floors. [Editor's Note: Past
visitors at La Tramacúa have reported that sewage lines often overflow
and open sewage runs by kitchen facilities.]
The prison was absolutely, suffocatingly
hot with just a few water pipes. What was really bad–I got a look at the
water bottles. They were all full of mold. They aren’t able to clean
their water jugs. There’s just not enough water available. At one point,
you could hear the water coming through the pipes. All the men started
The whole place smelled. They said it was
cleaned up for us. Mostly, it smelled like urine. They said the bags of
feces had been gotten rid of….
The kitchen area was totally dark. They
said they’d cleaned that up, too, but it wasn’t that clean. There were
three fans and ten giant cauldrons where they were cooking some soup or
stew. In the other room where they prepared the food, it was full of
flies. There was grease all over the floor. It didn’t smell very good. I
saw vegetables and fruit that were spoiled in the preparation area,
with flies all around them.
Prisoner collecting daily water at La Tramacúa
Since the beginning of the PICPS, there has been a series of prisoner
strikes against such conditions. More often than not they have been
violently repressed. Beginning on August 2, 2012, nonviolent resistance
began that has included as many as 11,000 prisoners in 21 institutions
and is still continuing. Prisoners have used a number of different
tactics including hunger strikes, the refusal to participate in prison
counts or work programs or to wear prison uniforms, and self-suspension
from prison balconies and railings in make-shift hammocks and harnesses.
The number one demand of the prisoners is that the Colombian government
establish a National Board of Consultation that includes prisoner
spokespersons in order to resolve the crisis in the jails.
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
The response of the Colombian Bureau of Prisons (INPEC) has so far been yet more repression and neglect. On August 10th
according to the legal collective and political prisoner solidarity
organization Lazos de Dignidad (Links of Dignity), which, along with Traspasa los Muros (Beyond the Walls)
, which they co-founded, has been one of the primary outside organizations supporting the strikers,
…prisoners of the La Modelo jail in
Arauca informed us that, in the morning hours, INPEC guards physically
attacked four prisoners in Patio One…in reprisal for their participation
in the National Days of Protest…..The attacked prisoners were placed in
solitary confinement instead of being…attended by medical personnel….
The 12th of August of 2012, in
the afternoon hours, spokespersons for the 34 hunger strikers at the
Penitentiary Complex of Picaleña (Ibagué, Tolima), informed us that the
state of the strikers has deteriorated, [and they are] suffering severe
dizziness, nausea, stomach sickness, cramps, fainting and decreased
mobility, without INPEC offering adequate medical attention….
Of particular concern at La Picaleña has been the condition of
prisoner spokesperson Alba Libia Esquivel whose health has been
especially affected. Esquivel has been on a hunger strike since August 8th
Lazos also reported that on August 23,
…in the afternoon hours, the Immediate
Reaction Group (GRI) of INPEC entered the High Security Penitentiary in
Combita, Boyacá, in a violent manner, proceding to launch tear gas and
to beat the strikers, leaving various wounds….Those wounded have been
taken in stretchers from their units, their whereabouts unknown.”
On August 27, according to a report from Lazos,
…in the jail of Valledupar, “La
Tramacúa”…inmates of Tower Four climbed the structure as a form of
protest of the present crisis in the jails. In the morning hours…Sgt.
Lucio entered with a group of guards launching tear gas and repressing
the protest and attacking the inmates with clubs. The prisoner Wilson
Jiménez Mora, who was found suspended from the structure, was thrown
from the third floor resulting in a fractured leg.
Isolation from families is the single most oft-cited prisoner
complaint. Most prisoners come from impoverished backgrounds and
families cannot afford trips to visit faraway prisons. Also, given
Colombia’s difficult terrain, and the lack of infrastructure
development, a trip of 200 miles can routinely take 12-15 hours in the
Mogollón tells of a particularly poignant encounter she had while visiting inside La Tramacúa:
The worst thing, the worst kind of
torture, wasn’t any kind of violence or anything like that. It seems
little, but so many people came up to me and told me about not being
able to see their families, being completely shut off. When we walked
between the Towers, the prisoners were all bunched up around the gates.
People would be calling to me, ‘Doctora! Doctora! Madre! Madre!’ They
would want me to write their names down.
One man said, ‘I’ve been here eight years! I can’t see my daughter!’
Another said, ‘I’ve been here twelve years and I haven’t seen my mother the whole time!’
It was one plea after another like that,
people who hadn’t seen their families for years. When I asked why, one
man responded, ‘We’re poor. Our families can’t afford to make the long
trips. And when we think of them coming in here, how it smells like
feces, it’s so humiliating, so disgusting. It is so hard to think of
them seeing us like this.
Mogollón again talked about the pleas she would hear as she walked through the institution’s halls.
would have to walk through these passageways that crisscrossed among
the different units. All the prisoners would be crammed up at the gates
and windows, calling to me, “Doctora! Doctora!’ or ‘Madre! Madre!’. I
would put my hand up just to acknowledge them. They would give me papers
with their names on them. One inmate called to me, ‘Please, please,
Madre! I’ve been here six years and I have two hernias. I can’t get
treatment, I can’t get medicine!’
Another told me, ‘Look, you’ve got to listen! There is no re-socialization here! There’s no such thing!’
Finally, at one point I stopped in one of
the passageways and spoke back to them. I said, ‘Look, I wish I could
help each one of you, but I can’t! I can’t because this place is modeled
on a US system. This model is based on punishment and the people who
designed this system don’t care about re-socialization. They don’t care
what happens to you! All I can do is to go back and do what I can to
change this whole system and draw attention to what you are suffering.
All of a sudden, they started clapping, yelling, ‘Go on!’ and ‘You speak the truth!’
And that is what we must do here in the US: we must go and speak the
truth about this situation our government has helped create. We must
intervene on behalf of Colombia’s prisoners—not only the more than
10,000 political prisoners, but on behalf of all those whose lives have
been broken by the US/Corporate Empire and the neoliberal economic and
political system it tries to impose throughout the world.
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
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.
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