By Patricia Lara Salive, El Espectador, March 26, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

“When the coronavirus gets into the country’s prisons—and it will get in—it will explode like the kind of fire that comes from a gasoline bomb,” says Julián Urrutia, Doctor of Public Health Policy at Harvard University, whose Ph.D. thesis was on health in Colombia’s prison system.

“Our prisons are an ideal breeding ground for the coronavirus, because of the combination of overcrowding and terrible health and hygiene,” he says.

“The consequence,” he adds, “will be a plague of biblical proportions that will first devastate the prison population, then the guards, after that their families, and, finally, our families. Maybe this is our punishment as a society, for our excesses in the use of deprivation of liberty to deal with any kind of crime, serious or not.”

It’s that ours is a punitive and jailer society: “If you do the crime, you do the time,” repeats our President. We have to change the chip. We have only to look at the numbers for our absurd penitentiary system: according to Attorney Manuel Iturralde, a member of the Prisons Group at the University of the Andes. Inpec (National Penitentiary and Prison Institute of Colombia) statistics show that there are 123,472 prison inmates in the country. However, they need to add the individuals packed together in police stations, where the conditions are even worse, but nobody knows how many there are, and those that are in the district prisons not operated by Inpec. Of those housed by Inpec, nearly 70% have been found guilty and sentenced, and nearly 30% are charged and awaiting trial.

Let’s look at the cases:  according to the book, How They Negotiated the Peace, (about to be released) by Víctor de Currea-Lugo, in December there were 330 FARC prisoners who, having received amnesty, walked free beginning at the end of 2016 when the Peace Agreement was signed. Moreover there are who knows how many that now have a right to conditional liberty, because they have accomplished the three-fifths of their sentence and have completed the re-socialization process, but the Enforcement Judge has not authorized their release, and they could spend months and even years waiting to be set free. And there are also many prisoners that have spent more than two years without a decision in their cases and because of that, they have the right to be set free, but they remain in custody, for the same reason. And there are even inmates who have completed their sentences a long time ago and they are still in prison.

So, according to Iturralde, if there were the political will, and if the law were complied with, we might speculate that prison overcrowding could be diminished by 20% – 30%. And we have to add to that the nearly 10% – 12% that the government says that it will liberate because of the prison emergency declared due to the coronavirus epidemic. But, it’s that those individuals, for humanitarian reasons, have no reason to be locked up. They are in prison for minor crimes with penalties of up to five years, accused of crimes of recklessness, are more than 60 years old, suffer from chronic diseases or have impaired mobility, and pregnant woman or women with children younger than three who live in prison with them.

Using these measures, and complying with the law, overcrowding would be ended. Riots and murders in the prisons would be controlled. And the time bomb of coronavirus in the prisons would be deactivated.

But it has to be done right now!

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