Colombian prisoners demand justice

Popular momentum is building to ensure that any settlement coming out of upcoming Colombian government peace negotiations with insurgents promotes social justice.

New prisoner resistance and recent documentation of abuses in Colombian prisons serve as reminders that, ideally, a peaceful and just Colombian society should promote prisoner rights. Indeed, said the Beyond the Walls group, "Our people and a bit of our country are in prison. No other place reflects as well their misery, tragedy, and powerlessness." The Colombian group said this in launching its 2005 campaign to build solidarity among prisoners and inform Colombians about prison conditions.

The Colombian prison system, however, has gained considerable international scrutiny, especially as detention rates have skyrocketed recently and political prisoners have come to make up almost 8 percent of Colombia's total prison population. Numbering 10,000, they are labor, indigenous, and human rights activists targeted for their political involvement and often victimized through blatantly false accusations. Political prisoners also include captured guerrilla insurgents.

With prisons serving as a tool of repression directed at political dissenters, observers see Colombia's prison situation as a fit topic for peace negotiators, especially if social justice is on the agenda. Prisoner rebellions in 21 prisons beginning on August 2 strengthen that case. Prisoners are engaged in hunger strikes, defying prison routines, and hanging themselves outside prison windows. A nationwide mobilization of prisoners, their families, and supporters set for September 28 in Bogota will bring attention to the prison issue.

Striking prisoners are demanding establishment of a "National Board of Consultation" that includes prisoner representatives, declaration of a social and humanitarian emergency in jails, relocation of prisoners to prisons near their homes, reduction of sentences, use of alternative sentencing, an end to overcrowding, improved health care and sanitation, and an end to extraditions to foreign countries.

Prison hunger strikes occurred in April and May of 2012. Prisoner mobilizations are an old story in Colombian jails, and ongoing abuse and violation of prisoner rights have long been documented by Colombian and international prisoner solidarity groups. Such reports have recently gained new currency with stories cropping up of prisoner deaths due to lack of medical care, prisoners discovered to be harboring tuberculosis, and prisoner suicides.

The record is of generalized lack of sanitary facilities, serious shortages of water for drinking and personal hygiene, fecal contamination of food, and filthy kitchens and living quarters. Above all else, prisoners resent isolation from families and friends due to long distances between prisons and homes and families' inability to pay for transportation.

One-third of prisoners have never been tried. Lawyers are often unable to confer with their clients. Prisoners report physical and mental torture. Political prisoners are often housed with jailed former paramilitaries, their former enemies.

Doubling of the prison population after 2002 has led to severe overcrowding. Beginning in 2000, 16 new prisons were built with U.S. funding, and soon Colombian prisons could accommodate 78,000 prisoners. Yet the current prison population is estimated at 130,000.

For English-language readers, the Alliance for Global Justice website www.afgj.org includes a compendium of information on prisoners' misery. It documents U.S. support for what apologists call Colombia's "new penitentiary culture." In addition to new prisons, the U.S. government supplied experts to redesign maximum security prisons and provide advice and oversight. Build-up of prison capabilities came as part of U.S. Plan Colombia, the multi-billion-dollar aid package aimed at support for military and police operations in Colombia.

There is, however, the sobering realization that whatever concern prisoner suffering evokes today, it's an old story.  "You don't have to look for a hell anywhere else, because hell is here," UN human rights official Anders Kompass told a press conference after surveying Colombian prisons in 2001. His report condemning overcrowding, filth, and incarcerations without benefit of sentencing rings true now.

Colombia's prison problem thus shares longevity with other Colombian social disasters like inequalities in wealth and land ownership and terror imposed through murders, disappearances, displacement from land, judicial montages, and militarization. Persistence of them all, prison troubles included, seem to validate their status as fixtures within the institutional framework of Colombian society. That consideration alone is a big factor pushing those negotiating peace with justice to take up the prison issue.

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