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Massacre in Colombian Prisons

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

23 March 2020

March 21st the armed forces of the Colombian state stormed Colombian jails to put down the protests of the prisoners. There have been a number of deaths officially reported, in the Modelo Prison in Bogotá so far the figures are 23 dead, 83 injured, 32 of them requiring admission to hospital. Seven guards were also injured two of them seriously.  No figures are available for the other prisons yet. Colombia's prisoners were protesting the conditions in which they are being held and the state's response to stop the spread of Covid-19 in the jails.

Colombia's prisons have long been a focus of attention for human rights groups. The sanitary conditions are poor, with outbreaks of TB and other infectious diseases common and overcrowding is an historic problem to which the state has responded with simplistic measures of just building more jails, many of them as part of the US Plan Colombia, making such basic mistakes in design as presuming all of Colombia has a tropical climate, when most populated areas are not, and designing jails on that basis. If they couldn't get the climate of Bogotá, the capital city, right, it comes as no surprise that the jails have numerous other design problems to which is added the incompetent administration and the repressive and vindictive measures taken by prison staff sometimes as an expression of individual hostility but more often than not as the implementation of official prison policy.

The jails are seriously overcrowded and the rate of overcrowding currently stands at 50.2%, according to the official figures, but this hides a wide discrepancy between different jails. In the northern and north eastern region of the country the overcrowding rate is 82.4% and 85.8% respectively, whilst the Viejo Caldas region has a rate of just 2.1%.  Within prisons there are also wide disparities between wings, where wings for white collar criminals and high ranking drug barons have low rates or are not overcrowded at all, whilst other wings have overcrowding rates in excess of 100%.

One of the measures demanded to ease pressure within the prisons, is the release of remand prisoners awaiting trial, pregnant women and old people, this last group representing 4.7% of the prison population. There are also a number of people near the end of their sentences who could be released and quite a lot of prisoners have spent long times in prison, even without the Covid-19 virus, a case could be made for releasing them, though 34.6% of prisoners are serving sentences of less than five years and a further 25.8% are serving sentences of between 6 and 10 years. Many of those in both categories will already have served a significant part of their sentence and could be released.

The prisoners' demands are simple for those who are held in prison or would still be held in prison following a release programme to ease pressure, the state should take measures to ensure the prevention of the spread of the virus in the prisons, such as the supply of disinfectants, hand washes, masks etc.. The National Prison Movement's statement shows that they are doing anything but that. Visits are banned as a protective measure, but staff come in and out of the prison at will, exposing the prisoners further still and there is nothing in the way of protective masks for prisoners. The prisons are infested with rats, bugs and pigeons and many prisons problems with their water supply, either there is not enough water or what water there is, is not drinkable. This situation is not new, in 2004 the Colombian Constitutional Court by way of its findings in Sentence T-388 of 2013 declared a State of Unconstitutional Affairs in Colombia's prisons and demanded that the state take urgent action to remedy the situation. This never happened.

Faced with this situation, the prisoners began a series of protests which ended in bloodshed on Friday night. The Colombian state has decided to crack down and take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to tighten the screws even further. In that, it has received the support of Bogotá's Mayoress, Claudia López, whose measures, whilst on track in some respects have been improvised and made up as she goes along, leaving thousands stranded out side the city of Bogotá unable to return and whilst there are no food shortages, people have to leave their houses to pay bills etc. exposing themselves still further. Many Colombians have no bank accounts and cannot make online payments. How the population outside of the prison is treated is reflected to a greater degree within them.

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