A measure of civilisation: prison conditions in Colombia
Winston Churchill in one of his more liberal moments said that a society‘s level of civilisation could be judged by its prisons. Prison is where modern states consign the citizens they deem least desirable. Consequently, how prisoners are treated and, more significantly who is imprisoned speaks volumes about the character of any political regime.

Certain aspects of the Colombian prison system parallel those in Britain. In both countries the populist rhetoric of being ‘tough on crime’ has been a means by which right wing governments have appealed to the electorate.

Over the past decade high security prisons have been built in Itagui, Valledupar, Acacaiso and Convíta. The latter is located high in the Andes where prisoners sleep on concrete slabs beneath a single blanket and roll call begins at 4 a.m. The opening of the prison was greeted with the headline in a national newspaper ‘At last a real prison’ -sentiments shared by all avid readers of The Sun.

The fetish with incarceration has produced the same result as in Britain, namely overcrowding.

Colombia’s prison population is 70,000 about double that for which the infra-structure was designed. In Britain the consequences of overcrowding are bad but in Colombia they are much more intense. Up to six prisoners can be placed in cells three metres by two. In the rainy season cells can flood with raw sewage as the overburdened sanitary system chokes.

Overcrowding severely impedes the capacity of staff to maintain control. There are cases of prisoners being kidnapped and held to ransom by other prisoners in ‘no go areas’. Brutal conditions have produced a murder rate of one prisoner a day.

However prisoners have no monopoly on violence. One of the worst examples of brutality by guards is the case of Luis Fernando Precíados an Afro-Colombian in Valledupar. He was beaten so badly that the autopsy found his liver and intestines in his chest cavity. Valledupar is one of those ‘real prisons’.

As in Britain Colombia imprisons a disproportionate number of young unemployed males. However, a striking difference is the high number of prisoners who are awaiting trial in Colombia, 22,000. Many of these prisoners are held on politically motivated charges. Delays in the processing of legal cases of political prisoners is notorious. For instance, the case of Naill Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauly three Irishmen charged with training the FARC in the use of explosives. They were arrested on 11 August 2001, their trial was completed last July yet they are still awaiting the verdict.

While in prison, political prisoners are particularly vulnerable. Para-military prisoners and contract killers act with impunity and, unlike the guerrillas, political prisoners do not have the insurance of an organisation that can take reprisals.

In April new laws will come into effect that will increase the level of state surveillance, powers of detention and penalties for offences. When similar powers where exercised in designated Zones of Rehabilitation, it led to arbitrary detentions occurring at the rate of more than three a day. The victims were Trade Unionists, leaders of social movements and human rights defenders. The new measures will increase the numbers of political prisoners and make it even more of a crime to defend human rights. Let the Churchillian criterion judge the civilisation of the Uribe regime.

Paul Grunnill

Picalea Prison - at the foot of the Andean Mountains, about 90 miles west of the capital of Bogota,

La Picota Central Penitentiary in Bogotá - This is a jail for men located in the city of Bogotá. The facility, of old construction and traditional style, is isolated and well protected. The penitentiary houses prisoners who were important leaders of the M-19. This jail has a considerable criminal population. It is a large facility and the prisoners there are rather well taken care of, despite the limitations noted. It is surrounded by high walls and its inside yard is usable for recreation. The Commission toured the entire establishment. It interviewed authorities of the prison that provided it with full facilities for this purpose. Interviews with several prisoners revealed no complaints about the conditions of the establishment, the food or the treatment they received. In general, however, prisoners who were not common criminals made reference to being mistreated and tortured while being investigated by not at the detention center itself. La Picota jail has a rather large chapel, which in recent months has been used for the oral courts-martial-martial of persons accused of being members of the M-19, a nursing center which provides medical care and a punishment yard used for individual treatment of prisoners given special disciplinary punishment. The cells are small in size but each prisoner has his own unit containing a bed, desk and seat. Prisoners are allowed to have books, magazines, radios, and other personal articles in their own cells. They do not wear prisoner uniforms but whatever clothing they desire. It can be said that the guard’s regular visits from their families and their defense attorneys.

Model Prison in Bogotá - This is a penitentiary center located in the city of Bogotá. The Commission was received by its director who, in offering his cooperation, stated that the center is a district jail with a very high criminal population which exceeds its capacity. The jail houses both common criminals and others detained on the order of the Military Institutes Brigade. He also said that the rear part of this facility had been dynamited, resulting in the escape of several prisoners, and that it is a detention center for men. The Commission was told that the prison was originally designed to hold approximately 2, 000 prisoners. At this time, however, it housed more than 4,000. The criminal population is fluctuating. With respect to those accused of subversive activities, the center director stated that they are divided essentially into two groups. The Commission went through the establishment and inspected its five yards. It met with a certain number of prisoners in each of these yards. Several prisoners complained of the poor conditions in the prison, poor food and insufficient medical care. Most of the prisoners under the military criminal justice system are accused of belonging to the FARC and are being tried at his time by the appropriate oral court-martial. Most of the prisoners interviewed told the Commission that they had been mistreated and tortured during their investigations and interrogations but not at the penal center itself. Some of them showed the marks of the mistreatment they received. Furthermore, the Commission noted the existence of an area of special cellblock for minors, age 16 to 18, in which there were no individual cells. There is a large room, which serves as a common dormitory, and next to it are sanitary services and showers. This center also has a cafeteria run by a social worker and a nutritionist. It has individual rooms where the minors attend classes. The facility has six teachers for primary education. The prisoners do not wear any type of uniform. The cells are small and the prisoners are allowed to have personal objects in them. They are allowed regular visits from family members and defense attorneys.

The Buen Pastor Jail in Bogotá - This detention center for women is located in Bogotá. The Commission was attended by the Assistant Minister of Justice who offered his full cooperation and facilities for the fulfillment of the Commission’s objective. Also present were the director, the assistant director, the legal consul and two social corkers of this prison. The director stated that the jail was exclusively for women and that at that time id had 417 women prisoners and 20 women sentenced for subversion. The director also noted that the prisoners received uniform treatment, no matter if their crimes were common crimes or crimes against the security of the state. The visitors system is regulated by a set of rules, but visits of defense attorney are regulated by specific instructions of judge. The reason for this measure, it was explained, is that on several occasions’ attorneys who were not the actual attorneys appointed by the prisoners have sought entry. The rules also allow for conjugal visits and special treatment of pregnant prisoners. The latter are allowed to leave the jail to have their children, although, according to several prisoners, this has not always been carried out. Several prisoners have had their children in jail. Close to the jail is a small school for the prisoner’s children. The Commission was also told that the prisoners are classified according to a procedure, which consists, first of all, of gathering biographical data about them after which they are divided by type of crime committed. After this, they are assigned to the corresponding cellblock. The Buen Pastor jail consists of large installations in a relatively new structure. It has large yards and long corridors, with cellblocks on the sides. In addition, there is a special cellblock for psychiatric treatment. The cellblocks interconnect with a center block and the cells, although individual in design, hold two persons each. Only a few prisoners were being held for subversion at the time of the Commission’s visit. They stated that they had been subjected to mistreatment and torture during their interrogations but not at their present place of detention.

Bellavista jail in Medellín - This is a jail for men located in the city of Medellín, in a part of the city somewhat removed from the downtown area. This is a rather large installation and two additions scheduled for completion in 1981 are now being built. The penitentiary center is overcrowded. It has more than 5,000 prisoners although its capacity is much smaller. At the jail entrance is a blackboard showing the number of prisoners in the different cellblocks. Prisoners sentenced for common crimes and those accused of crimes of subversion are mixed due to the overcrowding at the jail. According to the rules, prisoners should be separated by type of crime committed. The penitentiary has workshops for carpentry, metal-working, furniture-making, shoe repair, metal-casting, mechanics and electricity. It also has a chapel, a medial center and a large number of cells, all of which were seen by the Commission. During the tour, jail authorities gave explanations of the facilities to the Commission. The Commission was told that the number of prisoners entering the jail fluctuates daily and that the number of prisoners who have not committed common crimes is approximately 300. The Commission was welcomed by the director of the jail, and his legal advisors. All of these individuals are civilians. These authorities gave their full cooperation to the Commission during the visit. The Commission met privately with a certain number of prisoners in the jail chapel. They were folds that despite the overcrowding, the prisoner’s conditions were rather acceptable. None of the prisoners complained of mistreatment in the penal center itself or of poor food or extremely rigid discipline. They said that the jail¢s authorities behaved correctly. However, most of the prisoners being held for subversive activity stated that they had been tortured during their investigations and interrogations.

Villanueva jail in Cali - This jail for men is located in the city of Cali. The Commission visited it and met with several of the prisoners, after having spoken first with jail authorities. The director, who has taken studies in penal matters and criminology and has experience in this field, gave full explanations and the criminology and has experience in this field, gave full explanations and the Commission could see that he knew each of the prisoners well. It also saw that there was a climate of mutual trust. The prisoners praised the conduct of the director of this penal center. As stated before, the Commission met with several prisoners. Those who were being held as suspects in subversive activities told the Commission that, in general, during the interrogation following their arrest, they were mistreated and tortured, but not at the jail. They stated that they were satisfied with the system followed by the jail’s authorities. The Villanueva jail consists of rather old installations which, despite their size, are obviously overcrowded. A special program for those sentenced for common crimes allow them to work outside of the jail and they are able to help their families. They return to the detention center at night.

Model jails in Bucaramanga - This jail center is located in the city of Bucaramanga, within the limits of the city itself. The Commission was received by the director, who gave explanations about the center and answered all question addressed to him, The director stated that the jail had more prisoners than it was designed for, that most of the prisoners were common criminals and that the others were there for subversive activities. The construction of the jail is old and not very large. The Commission saw a relatively small yard where the prisoners stay during the morning hours until the afternoon, engaging in conversation, study or other activities without interruption. The Commission met with a large number of prisoner’s accused of crimes of subversion in the prison chapel. They stated that since their arrival at the jail, they had been treated satisfactory. They also stated that in the prior stage of interrogation, they had been mistreated and tortured, but not at the jail itself. The cells are small and the ones that the Commission saw open to the aforementioned yard. Most of the prisoners that the Commission saw were in the yard while others were in their cells, which were left open.

The Buen Pastor jail in Bucaramanga - This is a correctional facility for women located in the city of Bucaramanga. Its installations are rather large and of old construction, with bedrooms that are used as cells. It was visited by the Commission whose members spoke to the nuns who are in charge of the jail, as well as a large number of prisoners, all whom were there for subversive activities. The Commission inspected a large room where the prisoner’s children are kept. Their mothers are with them during the day. The prisoners interviewed by the Commission stated that during their investigations and interrogations following their arrest, they were mistreated and tortured by that was not the case at the jail itself. They added that, generally speaking, they received satisfactory treatment there. However, they stated that at certain times, they are not allowed to do certain things such as listen to the radio or read newspapers. The prisoners are taken care of, by nuns belonging to the Sisters of the Presentation Order. This Order is responsible for the detention center. They help the prisoners in different activities, among them, washing and ironing of clothing class room, a sewing room to make clothing for small children and a classroom for primary education. Most of the prisoners are there for having committed common crimes, primarily theft and murder. The Commission inspected two cells for those being held incommunicado where, it was said, prisoners are kept before going to interrogation. The purpose of this is to keep them from mixing with others held for prior processing. The Commission also saw a punishment cell which was extremely small. It had an iron door, no window and was extremely dark. The commission saw that this jail had very good sanitary conditions and was kept clean. It has large yards and gardens, which are the recreation areas for the prisoners. There is an atmosphere for trust and respect between the prisoners and the nuns.

Military centers - During its on-site investigation and after it, the Commission visited several military centers, all located in Bogotá. Some of these centers were used for provisional detention. A summary appraisal of these centers follows:

i) Artillery School - This center is located in the capital city of Colombia, approximately two miles from the La Picota prison. The artillery School is a provisional detention center for women. When it was visited by the Commission, 16 women prisoners were being held there accused of crimes against state security. They are waiting to be tried by the oral court-marital in Bogotá. Several of the prisoners were brought there from other jails in Colombia. This detention place consists of a large room, which is used as a dormitory, allowing no privacy, Next to this room is a bathroom with two sanitary services a shower. Visits from family members and attorney are allowed every eight days, on a schedule of 9:00 a.m. to 12 noon. Officials of the commission met privately in the cafeteria with several prisoners who stated that after their arrest they ere hit and then tortured.

ii) Cavalry school - This is a military center located on the outskirts of Bogotá where prisoners accused of subversive activity is kept temporarily for purposes of interrogation during the investigation stage. The installations are rather large, with small green areas located in different parts. It has an area of administrative offices, prisoner records and control area, and numerous cells located next to each other in cellblocks on a single floor which open to the yards. The cells are individual and the prisoners are kept in them with the doors closed. They are kept under permanent guard. The facility also has a water trough area, multifamily buildings for facility officers a shed and a garden.

iii) Military Institute Brigade - This is a modern building with strictly military-type installations. It has offices for executive and administrative functions and no detention facilities. It is across a street from the Cavalry School.

iv) Baraya Batallion - This is a large, well-protected military center with spacious buildings and large yards. In 1978 it was a provisional detention center. This place was the location of the oral court-martial of person’s accused of belonging to the FARC.

D. Mistreatment and Torture

- In late 1978 and during the first few months of 1979, the Commission received several claims relating to mistreatment and different types of torture by Colombian public agents. The Commission stated processing these charges by remitting to the government the pertinent parts of them, in accordance with its regulations. The purpose of this was to establish objectively the veracity of the charges.

During its on-site investigation, the Commission received testimony relating to the charges contained in the individual written claims, which ere given to it at that time, and in its interviews with prisoners being held in different jails of the country, with their defense attorneys and with human rights organizations which turned over several documents on this matter to the Commission. In general, the charges state that the physical mistreatment and the torture were carried out at temporary detention places or centers during the interrogation stage of the investigations.

The charges received and analyzed by the Commission mention the following detention places or centers where the mistreatment and torture were carried out:

1) Nueva Granada Batallion of Barrancabermeja;
2) Pichincha Batallion in Cali;
3) Inocencio Chinca School of Popayán;
4) Fifth Brigade of Bucaramanga;
5) Cavalry School in Bogotá
6) La Remonta;
7) Military Institutes Brigade;
8) Rook Batallion of Ibaqué;
9) Bolívar Batallion in Tunja, Boyacá;
10) Sogamoso Batallion;
11) Sacramonte Caves;
12) Cisneros Batallion of Armenia;
13) Codazzi Batallion of Palmira;
14) Tarqui Batallion, Sogamoso, Boyacá;
15) La Raya camp in Antioquia;
16) Polvorines camp in Rio Meléndez;
17) Villanueva Jail;
18) San Mateo Batallion;
19) Military Police Batallion No. 4, Fourth Brigade in Medellín;
20) Santa Elena;
21) Administrative Security Department (DAS);
22) San Isidro Penitentiary in Popayán;
23) Batallion No. 1 of the Military Police of Bogotá;
24) National Penitentiary at Palmira;
25) Military Post of Yacopí;
26) La Palma Police Station in Bucaramanga;
27) Cimitarra Military Station;
28) Bucaramanga Military Station;
29) La Victoria Military Station in Boyacá;
30) Boyacá Batallion;
31) Military Police Batallion H-1 of Puente Aranda in Bogotá. [8]/

The charges mention the following among the different forms and methods of torture: Long waits in the sun during the day and sleeping outside at night; drowning and submerging in water; application of the “submarine”; being blindfolded up to 12, 17 and 20 days; being blindfolded and tied for 47 days in Cimitarra; subjection to blows on different parts of the body with sticks and being kicked; being prevented from sleeping up to eight days and lack of rest; death threats to the prisoner, his family and friends, hanging by the hands; no water or food up to four, seven and eight days; pretending to shoot them in the head; being handcuffed; torture of other persons close to the cell so that their screams could be heard; being held incommunicado; application of electrical energy and shocks to different parts of the body; exercises until exhausted; being kept nude and standing; provocation of suffocation; “being washed”, walking on the knees; psychological torture; ducking in a lake while tied; cigarette burns; taking prisoners during raids and using them as shields while being handcuffed and blindfolded; pretending to shoot at persons hanging from trees; placement of weapons in the mouth; braking of nerves as a consequence of hangings; being kept nude and ducked in a river; refusal of medial care for pregnancy; breaking of ribs; being tied, blindfolded, permanently at times, hit with a stick, being kicked; wounded in the back by a firearm, at the detention place; threats of bringing family members to torture them in their presence; witnessing torture of other persons; convincing them that other accused persons had pointed the finger at them as participants in the same events; beings pricked with needless indifferent parts of the body; continuous interrogation and confessions forcing them to say that they had participated in an attack.

There are thousands of political prisoners in Colombia including many hundreds of trade union members, activists and leaders. Hundreds of student activists, indigenous activists, members of opposition political parties and community leaders are also held – nearly all without trial. Virtually all of these people are accused of ‘rebellion’ or ‘terrorism’ despite the fact that no proper evidence against them is ever produced. One thing that all of Colombia’s political prisoners have in common is that they were arrested after speaking out against Government policies and imprisonment is now a method that the Colombian authorities use widely to silence dissent.

Those held in jail are forced to live in extremely inhumane and dangerous conditions and are denied access to proper legal representation. They are also labelled as guerrilla sympathisers thus putting their lives at risk from paramilitary death squads that operate inside Colombia’s prisons with the acquiescence of the authorities.

In early 2004 Justice for Colombia began working with the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP), the oldest human rights NGO in Colombia, to assist trade unionists and others held in jail for political reasons. In particular our project focuses on the inmates of the political prisoners’ block of the Buen Pastor Women’s Prison in the Colombian capital Bogotá. The CSPP, with funding from the Justice for Colombia project, provides both humanitarian and legal assistance to prisoners as well as campaigning for a general improvement in prison conditions and an end to politically motivated detentions.

So far Justice for Colombia has raised nearly $4,000 for the political prisoners project and we are in desperate need of further assistance to sustain it. As well as paying for lawyers to defend unjustly imprisoned trade unionists the money is also used to purchase things such as blankets and mattresses (neither of which are provided by the prison authorities), reading materials, sanitary products, batteries for radios and other simple things that hopefully improve the very difficult lives that the prisoners are forced to lead whilst in jail. These items are normally taken into the prisons by the CSPP accompanied by members of the Justice for Colombia staff or one of our volunteers based in Colombia.

As a result of their work on behalf of Colombian political prisoners the CSPP has been the victim of various attacks and members of the organisation have been assassinated for their work. However, their work is vitally important and Justice for Colombia aims to increase and expand the assistance given and is in desperate need of further financial assistance to do so. So far the intervention of Justice for Colombia has secured the release of eleven trade unionists and community leaders who were being held in jail and it is only with continued support that we will be able to build on these successes

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