One of Many Saturdays in Prison – Colombia

by Camilo Insuasty-Obando (Para leer el original en español, haga clic aquí)

camiloCamilo is an independent journalist and the son of Colombian political prisoner Liliany (Lily) Obando.  When he wrote this article, Lily had been released from her jail cell at Buen Pastor Women’s Penitentiary and was finishing the remaining months of her sentence in home detention.  However, on August 5, 2014, Lily was taken into custody again.  Her sentence is for the vague charge of “rebellion”, a charge that has been used to imprison thousands of unionists, student activists and human rights defenders.  Click here to take action calling for Lily’s release. For updates concerning Lily’s case, please visit the website of the International Network in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners.

I don’t remember the exact day that I entered a jail, but I do remember with precision how that day transpired. That day would be the departure point where we would begin, along with my family, to reach our freedom, our freedom, as only one of us was behind bars but we all would suffer the two faces of the jail, the outside and the inside.

That would be the first of many Saturdays where entering the jail to visit a family member would be more than a right, a real achievement. Being a family member of an inmate already puts you directly in the game that INPEC (National Institute of Jails and Penitentiaries) wants to play–squadrons in blue uniforms, that you have only seen on television. From this day forward we would have to learn to sort through every condition, every attack and every humiliation on the part of the jail guard, who were much more than just the guards and the jail. In reality the prison was their empire. They were the emperors and we, the enemy.

In the interminable queues that extend dozens of meters from the front gate of the jail, one encounters persons (whether in inclement sun or rain) who have come from all parts of the city and some from other regions, persons of different social classes, with different ways of seeing the world. It appeared some live comfortable lives while others carry marks and scars that reveal their daily struggle for survival. In any case, an atmosphere of camaraderie and solidarity would be perceived in the entrance line such that the differences don’t then matter.

The only objective as much for the rich as the poor was to be able to enter. But as the corruption in this country is infused throughout all the social spheres and spaces, the jail is not beyond that and the persons with the greater social status and economic resources clearly have privileges such as entering with a large quantity of food and utensils (which surpass the limit of what is permitted the others), entering more rapidly and without having to wait in line, and so on. These were the inequalities among one another and this was only to be able to enter.

This day would be the first of many in which I would see how persons were required to throw out the food that they brought for their family members. I would see how the guards were impeding the entry of persons coming from Antioquia, Valle, Tolima, Huila and many more faraway regions, who after a long highway journey are told that among other things, they were not registered, that they are missing a stamp, that they were not on the visitor list (list in which the inmates write down the persons who can visit them). It was one excuse after another that literally left people perplexed by sadness and unable to see their family members.

In order to visit a family member or friend in the jail first you must register in the system of INPEC in order to receive your entrance number that is assigned in the order in which one arrives. The numbers 500, 600, 650 were the numbers for someone such as myself arriving outside the jail at 9:00 or 9:30am. Here I was when someone informed me that many of those who were before me had arrived as early as 4am, for example. The lines move slowly and after 11am if you had not entered, then you would have to try again the next Saturday.

It is interesting to see how in Colombia, despite the grand difficulties and the drastic repression, its inhabitants still hold to the firm desire to get ahead. Thus the jail also represents an opportunity to make some money and we were witnesses to the quantity of persons working outside the jail, selling food, taking photographs for INPEC to look over, guarding belts, jackets and other articles that were not permitted. Of course, over time, INPEC dislodged these persons from the immediate vicinity of the jail.

Once inside, the drama intensified. The treatment was each time more hostile on the part of the guard. The motto that was at the entrance, “Your human dignity and mine are inviolable” remained written only on the wall. For INPEC you were an intruder and they would look for whatever excuse in order to demoralize you. It is a clear tendency of the psychological war. In two opportunities they tried to oblige me to take off my clothes without justification and I know of cases of women who had to arbitrarily undress. Many times the obliged us to remove and throw away food or to eat what was “prohibited”. Illogically, for INPEC the articles not permitted changed every week.

In some other occasion, they falsely accused me of skipping the line with the police dogs, directing shouts and intimidations at me. The inspections were intense and those who performed them at the time harassed people with questions and mistreatment. The wait was eternal and finally after three or four hours you were before the last door that separates the jail within the jail. Behind that door there are mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, friends, and this is a fact invisible for the society, given that for the great majority they are only “delinquents”.

The atmosphere is always very sharp on the interior of the jail patio. Without needing to be claustrophobic you feel asphyxiated and very few times do you have motives to smile in a place where the passage of time is exaggeratedly slow.

You want to leave from there. The happiness of seeing your loved one is countered by the stress endured during the day. If a few hours seem interminable within the jail, imagining four, five years or even 30 or 40 is really very difficult. It is hard to put oneself in those shoes and accept that crude reality. The visiting time is short and unnerving. You were intending to think about positive things and interesting yourself in knowing that which you had never known, and that was the world of the jails. The conditions in which the prisoners were living and are living leave much to be desired.

Although the Buen Pastor women’s prison does not present the extreme conditions of the men’s prisons and other jails, this one also exhibits overcrowding. The cells in which two or more prisoners must sleep and live are of an extremely reduced space. The health service is terrible, if not practically null. Likewise the spaces for libraries, recreation, hygiene and other facilities are quite precarious. But there we were sharing the drama, both for the people who were out as those who were, are and will be inside.

The visits ended too soon. You were wanting to be there a little longer, an hour or two, but INPEC very rapidly emptied the patio and there they were, the last moments, with more eagerness than emotion, those that marked the close of the day. To close the door you were ready to leave. There were lines, equal to when you entered, but the guards were not so rigid at this hour of the day, although still things moved slowly. There is no record of what lies behind, there is only a door and behind it there are many truncated lives, struggling, trying to rise above being forgotten and enclosed, trying, just trying to carry on a “normal life”.

Once outside the jail again, you breathe then for a moment before beginning your walk. The world continues as usual, the cars circulate, the families pass by, and nothing stops. Everything seems to be relatively normal like always. For the outside, the jail doesn’t exist. You pass and look from afar. It is as if hundreds of persons might have been left to their own luck to die. Certainly it is.

But from this day forward I would see the jail with other eyes. This would be the first of many Saturdays that I would be there, since the cruelties, the injustice and the persecution that are so frequent in Colombia had touched our door, snatching away our mother, Liliany Obando, on an afternoon of August, 2008. The cost of her commitment to achieve better and more equitable conditions of life for many Colombians had been the targeting of the State, the indifference of many who were considered “close” or “friends”, and lastly, imprisonment.

As family, and as for many families more, we live together the incarceration of our family members. Those who are outside live with the same intensity as those who are inside. When one of your loved ones is deprived of liberty, the nuclear family changes drastically and in a country where the great number of homes is composed of mothers who are heads of households, it becomes really difficult to overcome the everyday life and survive practically when it is the mother who is behind bars.

In that way the years passed by, drenching us each time with the difficult realities that create a leviathan, indolent and repressive State. But the adverse conditions also brought to you positive aspects such as the solidarity within the same family, the taking on of conscience, the struggle for justice, of being reflective before the difficulties of thousands of Colombians who are deprived of their liberty and their families.

If what they were looking for with incarceration was to generate fear in Colombian families, this has had a contrary effect. It has armed us with courage and fortitude and every weekend, at the outskirts of all the jails of the country, they are there with enviable composure and dignity.