In Colombia, the concoction of high levels of prison overcrowding, inadequate healthcare and lack of basic provisions such as water has led to violence and unrest during the coronavirus pandemic. In this blog, partners at Dejusticia, explain how the government has not only failed to protect people in prison from the coronavirus, but responded to their pleas for help with violence and dismissal.
Like other countries around the world, Colombia is currently facing a serious prison crisis as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has brought it to a critical point. High levels of overcrowding, deficient health services, cases of torture, and lack of access to drinking water, etc., routinely affect the dignity of prisoners. Since 2013, its prisons have been, according to the Constitutional Court, in an “unconstitutional state of affairs,” which is a situation that massively and broadly violates the fundamental rights of the prison population due to the excessive use of incarceration and other related problems.
In this context, overcrowding and competition for the scarce resources available are the main causes of quarrels and conflicts among the prison population, as well as between prisoners and prison guards. Additionally, the prison crisis is characterized by the absence of adequate prison governance, in which, for example, criminal organizations control the distribution of cells, charge rent, extort, pay bribes, etc.
As a result of these circumstances, the arrival of coronavirus forebodes not only a massive contagion/outbreak in prisons (due to the impossibility of adopting social distancing and other prevention measures), and also many avoidable deaths within the prison system. Currently, 34 prisons across the country have confirmed cases of COVID-19 (there had been 3.477 infected persons, 3.367 recovered and 8 deaths by July 28, 2020). It is certain that this number presents an underreporting because the authorities are not being done enough testing. As highlighted by Penal Reform International however the human toll of COVID-19 on persons detained is unknown at this point as testing is not systemic, or inadequate, and data is not collected accurately or transparent.
The pandemic has become a crisis within a crisis, a situation on the brink of disaster. The situation highlights an urgent need for the State authorities to protect the incarcerated population. But, despite the urgency of the pandemic in the prison system, the Colombian State has responded slowly, ineffectively, and insufficiently.
Days after the confirmation of the first case of COVID-19 in Colombia on March 6, the Ministry of Health and Social Protection declared a state of health emergency on March 12. However, it was not until a month later on April 14 (weeks after the first infections were confirmed in Colombian prisons) that the President took some action that proved too little, too late.
Reducing prison overcrowding
The President issued the Legislative Decree 546 of 2020 to reduce prison overcrowding by granting home confinement measures (or ‘home arrest’) on April 14. This followed recommendations by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the United Nations and the World Health Organization to reduce risks of COVID-19 among persons detained.
Even before it was issued, the Decree was strongly criticized by criminal lawyers, civil society organizations (including Dejusticia), and the prison population for being insufficient: while in Colombia the nationwide prison population in March 2020 stood at 121,079 holding 41,316 more people than the official occupancy (an overcrowding rate of 51.2%), the Decree only sought to provide temporary home confinement for 4,000 people (an overcrowding reduction of only 5%). This Decree is just one of the many other inadequate measures adopted, such as prohibiting the entry of monitoring bodies – cuticula to ensuring protection of human rights – and even defense lawyers, from visiting prisons and ordering health protocols (such as handwashing), while ignoring the fact that many prisons do not have a sufficient supply of soap and clean water.
The Attorney General has opposed release measures on the grounds that “criminality is more dangerous than the pandemic.” The Attorney General has also called the Decree unconstitutional because it affects citizen security and because there is, according to him, no relationship between overcrowding and the occurrence of mass contagion. Meanwhile, more than 4 months after the arrival of the virus in Colombia, the government has still not adopted any substantial measures to reduce overcrowding, supporting instead legislative proposals such as life imprisonment for people who commit sexual crimes against minors – a proposal that will increase the use of imprisonment and overcrowding.
Pleas for help – gone unheard and suppressed
On the night of March 21, protests were held in several prisons across the country, in which the prison population demanded urgent measures to protect them from coronavirus. In La Modelo, a prison in Bogotá, there were violent clashes, in which the police, the army, and INPEC (the institution in charge of administering and guarding the prisons) came in to suppress the protest, leaving 24 people dead and more than 80 injured.
The Attorney General and the Minister of Justice claimed that the protest was a massive escape attempt orchestrated by FARC dissidents and the ELN guerrilla in attempts to delegitimise the calls for preventive measures to be put in place. Journalists investigations carried out by Semana and Cerosetenta showed that there was an excessive and disproportionate use of force by the authorities; not only was tear gas used in closed spaces to suffocate persons detained, but also, of the 24 dead, 23 had wounds from rifles and pistols on their backs, on their heads, and at close range, suggesting that they were defenseless. These investigations, based on testimonies of people in prison, photographs and videos, also showed cases of torture in the following days, a situation that, to date, has not been addressed in criminal or disciplinary proceedings to punish those responsible.
The aforementioned, added to violent episodes that occurred in previous years, shows that violence in Colombian prisons is common and systematic. Furthermore, these facts are not investigated by the competent institutions and remain in impunity because there is no sanction against the authorities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, scrutiny of these events is less, given that family members of incarcerated persons are not allowed, nor are defense attorneys or civil society organizations.
The Colombian government has not only acted negligently to protect the prison population from the threat of the pandemic, but has also ignored abuses in the use of force to suppress protests and has continued to delegitimize the justified complaints made by people in detention by dismissing them as escape plans.
Certainly, the Colombian State has the duty to protect the incarcerated population from the risks of the pandemic because, just like every other person, they have fundamental rights that must be protected. These rights are derived from the Constitution and international human rights treaties that the State has signed.
But, in light of the government’s negligence and inaction, as well as the persecution and criminalization of protests by people detained, the pandemic forebodes a predictable and preventable humanitarian tragedy. It is therefore necessary for the State to take seriously the demands of the prison population and, instead of delegitimizing their protests, to fulfil its constitutional and international obligations to protect people in prison who are still citizens that have the right to life, the right to health and dignity.
Dejusticia has issued recommendations which can be read here and here.