Colombian Prison Strikes Continue-Inhumane Conditions “Made in the USA”

by James Jordan

Strikes involving thousands of prisoners at 21 institutions continue in Colombia against the humanitarian crisis in the jails. Overcrowding 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 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),

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%.

Bellavista Jail in Medellín

In a video-recorded interview 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 prisoners.” 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 running….

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:

  1. Declare a Social and Humanitarian Emergency in Colombian jails;
  2. Regionalize prisoners in institutions near their families;
  3. Reduce all sentences by 20% and increase the use of alternative sentences such as home detention;
  4. Resolve problems of health, sanitation and overcrowding;
  5. 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).

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 mountainous regions.

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.

We 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.

      1. 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:

embassyofcolombia@colombiaemb.org, emwas@colombiaemb.org, ccuevas@colombiaemb.org, fsantos@presidencia.gov.co, ministro@minjusticia.gov.co, reclamos@mij.gov.co, direccion@inpec.gov.co, reclamos@inpec.gov.co, cidhoea@oas.org, cidhdenuncias@oas.org, apizarro@oas.org, oacnudh@hchr.co, secretaria_privada@hotmail.com, agenda@agenda.gov.co, RothenbergLL@state.gov, james@afgj.org

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.

In ENGLISH:

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.