The “New Penitentiary Culture”: US Designs for Colombian Jails

How the USAID, Federal Bureau of Prisons and the School of the Americas Have Impacted Colombia’s Prison System

By James Jordan
Reprinted from The Narco News Bulletin

September 9, 2010

Amid much talk of human rights and improved conditions for those deprived of liberty, in March of 2000, the US ambassador and Colombia’s Minister of Justice signed the “Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System.” Called the dawning of a “New Penitentiary Culture,” the US government, through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the US Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), would redesign Colombia’s maximum and medium security institutions, providing millions of dollars in funding, advice and oversight. Central to this restructuring has been the building and expansion of as many as sixteen new jails designed to handle an influx of some 30,000 new inmates—an increase in capacity of more than 40%. The reason cited for building these new jails was to alleviate overcrowding as a necessary first step toward better conditions.

Have conditions improved significantly? Indications are that they have not, and the greater capacity seems to have motivated a surge in arrests and the exercise of social and political control rather than with the alleviation of overcrowding. According to some observers, prisons have been turned into fronts of war, and at least five of the sixteen new prisons have been or are currently directed by graduates of the infamous School of the Americas. According to the Colombian Coalition Against Torture, “It is of serious concern that Colombia’s prisons are increasingly militarized. Indeed, the majority of prisons visited by the Fundación Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos[FCSPP-Foundation Committee of Solidarity with the Political Prisoners]…are under the command of high-ranking members of the military and police forces, either retired or active, and lack the skills necessary to manage a prison.”

Besides detaining members of the political resistance, the dominant purpose for these new prisons appears to be the incarceration of large numbers of prisoners arrested for crimes arising from a worsening economic crisis coupled with a lack of social investment. The Colombian government is following a playbook based on the US experience. The US puts a higher percentage of its population behind bars than any other nation on Earth.

The growth of the prison population has been phenomenal since the inception of the new US/Colombian prison program. One Ministry of Justice document from Dec. 2007 shows a prison population of 63,603. An INPEC document from January, 2010 puts the population at 76,471. Just over three months later, an article in the Colombian daily, El Tiempo said that there were 106,000 prisoners under the custody of INPEC.3 If these figures are all true, then the increase in the prison population has already exceeded the new spaces being built. So much for the stated purpose of relieving prison congestion.

Vincenzo Gonzalez of the Colombia Peace Association states:

“The new model imposed on Colombia’s prisons…has been designed to increase the repression and intimidation of those who are fighting for the rights of the people. With the new agreement, Colombian prisons have been turned into ‘theaters of military operation,’ where civil authority is subordinate to military and police authority and where universal and constitutional human rights are persistently violated.”

In a previous article published in Narco News, an in-depth picture is given for La Tramacúa Penitentiary in Valledupar, Department of César—the first of the sixteen new prisons. La Tramacúa was followed by prisons in Acacias, Dept. of Meta, and Girardot, Dept. of Cundinamarca. These were built with an initial $4.5 million investment from the US Bureau of Prisons.4 La Tramacúa has been rife with problems, including severe lack of access to water, fecal contamination of food, and violence directed against political prisoners by guards and paramilitary gangs. (The Alliance for Global Justice is circulating a petition demanding an improvement in conditions there available online at .) What has been the experience for the other prisons designed after the US model? And what exactly is that model?

According to a statement by the FCSPP, all of the prisons built under the US-Colombian agreement were designed to put “…security before all other considerations. In general, they are located far from urban centers, in isolated and difficult to reach places and, in the majority of cases, in zones with extreme temperatures (very cold or hot). The design defects, like the failures of planning, have in consequence that various of these buildings suffer from a problem in the provision of water…. These new jails are characterized [by]…the isolation of the inmates with insufficient areas…for work, education and recreation, with extremely rigid internal rules, such that the jail is no longer conceived as a space directed toward resocialization, but as a place of restriction to fulfill only the role of punishment.”

The Colombian Women Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War released a statement for International Women’s Day, 2009, that speaks poignantly about the new prisons:

“…We denounce and reject…a policy of penitentiaries and jails following the dictates of the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons, giving priority to the considerations of security, militarization and privatization of the establishments of incarceration. They do not consider issues of gender, but homogenize treatment…with criteria…that violates human rights of the persons deprived of liberty, that imposes mechanisms of invisibilization, depersonalization and desocialization, especially in regards to the political prisoners and [inmates] proceeding from the poorest sectors….They treat the political prisoners as ‘internal enemies,’ placing even more restrictions on them than the other [inmates]…. [We reject] the construction of the…penitentiaries… with the advice and funds of the Gringos. [They are] Masses of cement, grey, constructed for men, but also to be occupied by women…for whom they ignore our specific needs as women; gigantic containers of men and women in which they intend to rigorously make us pay for our ‘supposed crimes,’ where they are looking to ‘normalize us,’ which is to annul our humanity and our own free will.”

The prison system in Colombia had numerous problems before the involvement of USAID and the US Bureau of Prisons. These included overcrowding, inadequate conditions and instances of beatings and torture, especially in regards to political prisoners and prisoners of war. There was, however, written into law and penal policy a commitment to the reeducation and resocialization of inmates, and to some extent, there were provisions for work and programs for personal advancement, if inadequate. At least these were stated goals that were sometimes acted upon.

With the signing of the US-Colombian agreement, the argument is difficult to make that there has been “improvement” or that a “new culture”—at least a culture that can be described as positive—has emerged in Colombian prisons. The previously cited Narco News article on La Tramacúa shows that the period of this New Penitentiary Culture and prison construction has coincided with a rise in instances of torture committed by Colombian government personnel alongside an increase in arbitrary arrests of members of the political opposition. The predominance of active and retired military personnel in managing Colombian prisons, many of whom were trained by the School of the Americas5, underscores the idea that the prisons are being restructured as a new front of military containment and political intimidation.

In a CSPP survey between April and June, 2008, a majority of prisoners said they had been tortured at least once and 86% said they had been psychologically tortured. The survey revealed that INPEC guards committed a majority of the acts of torture in the prisons, although in some cases Army and Police officials were involved.

If one takes an overall look at INPEC during this New Penitentiary Culture period, the picture emerges of an institution both blundering and beholden—blundering in its outward mission, beholden to other interests. Put those together, and the situation spirals out of control. Right now INPEC has been wracked with a series of scandals—scandals of paramilitary privilege, extortion rings, institutional theft, harsh conditions and huge numbers of unidentified or misidentified prisoners. Paramilitary leaders have been found under INPEC custody armed with pistol and grenade, ordering assassinations, arranging drug shipments, in possession of drugs, whiskey, cell phones and other prohibited technology and large stashes of cash.

Even were a warden wanting to run a more even-handed institution, indications are that higher officials would interfere. An exposé by the Colombian weekly La Semana reveals that at the Itaguí prison, where a large number of paramilitary leaders are housed, jailed para bosses were using cell phones to order assassinations and the violent retaking of towns. In a common area near their cells, there were found a pistol, grenade and money hidden in books. Security cameras were not functioning, and no fingerprints were found on the items. When prison Director Yolanda Rodriguez was questioned, she said that whenever she tried to do anything about paramilitary privileges, she found her “hands tied.” She says she received communications on a daily basis from high government officials, including the Regional and General Directors of INPEC and the Minister of Justice himself, ordering her to change the rules to favor paramilitary prisoners.

Colombian journalist Gina Parody asks:

“What do we have to show a year after these reports? Nothing….The Director of INPEC indicates that a special rule exists for those held under Justice and Peace6 that is more lax, that permits that they may have a special treatment in communications, in visits, etc. What article of the law of Justice and Peace deals with this? Where did the Director of INPEC get this?”

These examples give us a general view of the health and functioning of INPEC after a decade of US re-designing and the New Penitentiary Culture. But what of these new institutions designed under BOP guidance? As mentioned earlier, a previous article reveals conditions at La Tramacúa. But is this “model institution,” indicative of the others, or a case unto itself? Sadly, it seems the others are following closely in its trail.

While prisoners at La Tramacúa have suffered fecal contamination of their food, in the new Picaleña penitentiary in Ibague, Dept. of Tolima, prisoners are being served rotting food on what seems to be a regular basis. During the month of April, prisoners had outbreaks of food poisoning on three separate occasions, affecting as many as 750 prisoners at one time. The Director of Picaleña is SOA graduate Maj. Juan Carlos Sandoval Gutierrez (ret.).

The Cartagena prison, Dept. of Bolívar, is under the management of Lt. Col. Dionicio Calderon Sanchez (ret.), also an SOA graduate. At Cartegena, a network of inmates and guards were discovered running an extortion racket against other prisoners, with 90 cell phones and other prohibited items found among involved prisoners.

At Bogotá’s La Picota prison, two dangerous leaders of the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self Defense Forces of Colombia), the country’s largest paramilitary organization, escaped by walking out the front door with the apparent cooperation of prison personnel. A former Senator connected with the paras was found to have air conditioning in his room, while, at another time, there were some eight bottles of whiskey found in cells inhabited by paras. The Director of this institution, Enrique Arce, was removed from his position. He is now serving as the Director of Puerto Triunfo penitentiary in the Dept. of Antioquia, another of the US-designed prisons.

La Dorada penitentiary is located in the city of Manizales, Dept. of Caldas. It has been the site of several murders of inmates under questionable circumstances. One such murder was that of prisoner Álvaro Soaza, who was being transferred from La Dorada to La Picaleña in Ibagué. On the 30th of January, 2009, his family received a call telling them that Soaza had died in Ibagué on the 27th. He had been badly beaten by guards from La Dorada between the 13th and 16th of January. La Dorada is also the prison where health providers undertaking a census of prisoners were illegally detained when officials impeded them leaving the prison after numerous cases were discovered of inmates without adequate identification. The survey, undertaken throughout the prison system, found 28,000 prisoners with incomplete, incorrect or nonexistent ID.

Since La Dorada first began operations in July, 2003, it has had eight directors, four of them(and at least one sub-director) trained at the School of the Americas. The SOA-trained Directors have included Lt. Col. William Carajalino Pagani, Lt. Col. Orlando Fabio Casteñeda Jadeth, Lt. Col. Miguel Evan Cure and Lt. Col. César Augusto Cardenas Gonzales, working with Sub-Director and fellow SOA alumnus, Maj. Luís Peña Peña.

At Valledupar’s La Tramacúa prison, inmates have access to water only ten minutes a day, but at least it is drinkable. At Palo Gordo’s penitentiary, in Giron, Dept. of Santander, inmates only had access to water five minutes a day that was not even fit to drink. During the last four years there have been at least two murders and countless assaults. Educational and work programs are not being provided and the prison has been the site of several hunger strikes by political prisoners over conditions. The prison is 14 miles from the city, on a dirt road, where visitors must pay taxis to wait while they are inside the prison, making transportation both difficult and expensive. The Director at Palo Gordo is SOA graduate, retired Col. José Alfonso Bautista Parra.

Ex-political prisoner Gustavo Mendoza’s analyzes the intent of the US-Colombian agreement. “The success of this strategy of social control of territory…is realized through the prosecution of activists from [the] social [movement]. By undermining the so-called ‘investor confidence’ these social movements are now the main obstacle to ownership of our natural resources by multinational corporations….”

Looking at the number of displaced, the numbers of the dead and the numbers of the unjustly imprisoned, one thing becomes clear: the majority of those targeted by US-sponsored war and repression in Colombia are rural populations of farmers and farm workers and indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Also gravely affected are their allies, both urban and rural, among the labor, student and political opposition sectors. The reason rural people are targeted is because they own, live on and work land that blocks access for transnational corporations to natural resources and, therefore, to huge profits.

The war in Colombia is incorrectly sold as a war against drugs and a war against terrorism. It is a war for land. The war has forcibly removed as many as 5 million people from their homes, with some 70% of those displaced being women and girls, and some ten million hectares (25 million acres) handed over for exploitation by foreign corporations and businesses allied with paramilitaries.

The US restructuring of the Colombian prison system to house tens of thousands of new prisoners is inseparable from the deployment by US troops on seven new bases in Colombian territory. Both are undertaken with a goal of the complete destruction and intimidation of all forms of resistance to foreign corporate encroachment. Indeed, the Colombian Women Political Prisoners, in their International Women’s Day Statement felt specifically moved to speak against the foreign US bases: “We denounce and reject….the installation and operation of United States military bases in our territory. With these they only exacerbate and internationalize the Colombian internal conflict…and remove even farther yet the possibility for a political exit and negotiation to the Colombian internal conflict and the construction of an enduring peace.”

There are many questions to be answered about the US role in restructuring Colombia’s prison system. How many of Colombia’s prison personnel were trained at the School of the Americas? How many are being trained and advised by the US Federal Bureau of Prisons? What are the methods being taught? What is the extent of US public funds being invested into this restructuring? What role have US personnel played in the training and oversight of torture carried out by INPEC, military and police officials in US prisons?

What is clear is that US involvement in Colombia, from Plan Colombia to the new military bases to the restructuring of the prison system, all serve the purpose of subjugating the Colombian nation to transnational corporate exploitation. The best response to this situation is that the US withdraw its support for war and repression and stop interfering with the sovereignty and democratic will of the Colombian people.