Colombia’s prison authorities, backed by the government, on Monday declared an emergency over inhumane conditions in its penitentiaries to free an emergency budget needed to improve living conditions of inmates.
The measure had become urgent after judges across Colombia ordered a suspension of all incarcerations in at least 13 overcrowded prisons. According to newspaper El Tiempo, wards in four other prisons were also closed for new inmates. The rulings had put local authorities in an impossible position as they had nowhere to house convicts or suspects.
In Colombia’s second largest city Medellin for example, prisoners were temporarily sheltered in the basement of the local prosecution office after the doors of the city’s two prisons shut for new inmates.
The shutting down of prisons for new inmates created a situation that made it “impossible to maneuver,” Justice Minister Ruth Stella Correa told press.
The declared emergency frees up some $89 million to counter the overcrowding, which is most likely used to finance plan to create 26,000 new cells as promised by the government months ago.
“It is very clear for the government that this situation must be solved soon and to do this we have not only announced this emergency, but have also proposed 12 measures to solve it, including a new penitentiary code which is being studied by Congress,” Correa told newspaper El Espectador.
The emergency itself allows authorities to circumvent regulation in place to grant fair competition in the awarding of government contracts. This means that prison authorities can grant contracts without having to go through bureaucratic procedures in place to avoid nepotism.
However, according to El Tiempo, more money is needed for prison authorities to provide adequate health services to inmates, another problem which has led to prisoners having no access to basic medication.
The prison crisis is not just felt in the country’s penitentiaries; Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office warned that five of its detention facilities in the capital Bogota had an overcrowding of 70%.
In a response, Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office told newspaper El Espectador that the taken measures were insufficient to solve the problems in Colombia’s prisons and consequently improve the living conditions of the country’s approximately 117,000 inmates.
“Given the magnitude of the country’s biggest prison crisis in recent history, the prison emergency is not functional and can not be invoked to ward off the overcrowding and the closing of wards and prisons which, at the moment, are the core aspects of the crisis,” Ombudsman Jorge Armando Otalora told the newspaper.
Promises to build new prisons are not new; the plan to create an extra 26,000 cells were first coined by one of Correa’s predecessors, German Vargas, when he vowed to build five new prisons containing 25,000 cells in July 2011.