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COLOMBIA: In prison hell

September 2012

[English] [français]

These last few years in Colombia, the incarceration rate has considerably increased and conditions of detention have deteriorated. Prisoners suffer from serious breaches of human rights and attacks on dignity.

105 000 detainees are crammed into the country’s 144 prisons (62 of these for women), compared to 50 000 in 2002 and 80 000 in 2010. The imprisonment rate is rising by 1.7% every month, while the number of releases only decreases.

It is generally the case that detainees suffer from prison overcrowding, from low levels of sanitation which allow the spread of disease (tuberculosis, leprosy, hepatitis, HIV, etc.) and lead to food poisoning, from a lack of drinking water and healthcare, and from a lack of socio-educational activities and training.

Add to this torture and ill-treatment by INPEC staff (National Penitentiary and Prison Institute), certain prison governors and army personnel. Among the most common practices are collective punishment (restricted access to the phone, to cells, electricity, food, drinking water), solitary confinement, pressure on visiting relatives, mock executions, beatings, stripping, putting in the “scorpion” position (feet and wrists in handcuffs), use of tear gas, sexual assault and asphyxia.

- “A new penitentiary culture”
Since 2000, under Plan Colombia (an agreement with the United States to combat drug trafficking), 11 national prisons (ERON) have been established, modelled on high-security American prisons. Although these centres are less overcrowded, nevertheless they still suffer from the other problems mentioned above and practise even more dehumanising methods (systematic isolation, restriction of walks and visits).

- Political prisoners
The treatment of some 8000 political prisoners is shocking. These include guerilla fighters, human rights defenders or militants accused of insurrection or criminal acts and persons attached to no specific cause but who are labelled as rebels, simply to suit the statistics.

Armed conflict exists equally in prisons. Many centres are managed by retired military personnel who see these political detainees as sworn enemies. They are regularly assaulted by paramilitary prisoners who enjoy the support of their guards.

Officially for their protection, but in fact as a punishment, the prison administration puts them into solitary confinement. Guerilla fighters are often wounded on arrival in prison but are not treated.

- The new prison of Valledupar
The medium- and maximum-security prison of Valledupar in Cesar state (to the north, Atlantic side) is a prime example of the “new penitentiary culture”. It offers the worst conditions of detention in the whole country.

Built in 2000, this is basically a concrete block with an average temperature of 40 degrees. The 1 400 detainees have access to drinking water for just half an hour a day, and this on the lower floors only, which creates violent tension between prisoners. The shower rooms and toilets are so filthy that the government had to evacuate the premises temporarily to limit the spread of disease. Some prisoners have been protesting since 2011 and consequently have had their access to drinking water even more severely restricted, they have been subject to tear gas attacks while they slept, and have been beaten.

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