It’s High Time to Reform Colombia’s Prisons

President Ivan Duque Marquez

Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez

Minister of Justice and Law Margarita Cabello Blanco

Minister of National Defense Carlos Holmes Trujillo

Minister of the Interior Nancy Patricia Gutierrez

            Dear President Duque, Vice President Ramirez and Cabinet Ministers:

            We were shocked by the news of the killing of 23 inmates and the injury of 83 more inmates by Colombian Armed Forces at the La Modelo prison in Bogota on Saturday March 21. This outrageous armed response to prisoners’ demands that your government provide protection against the COVID-19 virus, comes at a time when La Modelo and other prisons are severely overcrowded, with the health of inmates seriously ignored. This tragic loss of life caused by the violent response of your government occurred because your government and other governments before yours have ignored basic sanitation practices while overloading prisons throughout the country. 

            We call upon you to provide medical care to injured prisoners and to provide safe conditions to all prisoners. This is a human rights issue and the Colombian Constitution requires that you take immediate steps to provide a safe place for all the persons who have been incarcerated. We call upon you to see that new, spacious facilities are provided for all persons sentenced by the courts to be imprisoned. The urgency of these prison reforms cannot be overstated in this time of pandemic spread. Today’s news reports detail numerous new cases of COVID-19 in prisons in Villavicencio and elsewhere in Colombia.

            For many years the Colombian government has treated persons assigned to prison, even for minor infractions, as if they were less than human. We call upon you to design and build prisons with the humanity of their occupants in mind. We are aware that the United States Government has in the past encouraged and supported construction of so-called maximum security prisons in Colombia which isolate prisoners and fail to provide them the needed opportunity for recreation and study.

            A society is only as good as the care it provides to those persons whom it assigns to prison. Colombia has a long history of exceptional violence—killings by paramilitary forces supported in clandestine form by the government, paramilitarism which your government fails to acknowledge in Colombia, and Armed Forces which, encouraged by corrupt political figures and commanders, have murdered thousands of innocent non-combatants classified as “false positives”.

            All of these provide evidence of a government which fails to recognize the humanity of a large percentage of its own citizens, which condemns the Colombian Government as a serious human rights violator. We recognize the damaging role the U.S. Government has played in development of inhumane prison models and strategies for Colombia and call for an end to these seriously flawed policies. And we call upon you, as responsible officials of the Colombian government, to protect the health of prisoners in your charge, in this time of great threat from the COVID-19 virus, and to devote resources and serious attention to making your prisons less crowded and more responsive to prisoners’ basic needs.

 Jack Laun

Co-Founder and Program Director

Colombia Support Network

April 22, 2020

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