Dramatic overcrowding and sub-human living conditions in Colombia’s prison system is the result of the country’s failing justice system, according to think tank Dejusticia.
The “heavy-handed” judicial approach, whereby increasingly high prison sentences are handed out to criminals, is what has pushed the prison system to the brink, investigator Juan Sebastian Hernandez told El Espectador newspaper.
While the NGO believes that the corruption in the prison system and the inhumane living conditions are often highlighted in the media, the causes of the years-long crisis are consistently ignored and thus remain unsolved.
Overcrowding, corruption of INPEC officials or decomposed food often appear in the media, as dozens of people sleeping on floors and bathrooms, torture cases and rotten food are shocking images. But while these problems receive most of the attention, the structural causes of the crisis usually go unnoticed, and not because they are unknown: it is not that prisons are lacking, but that Colombian criminal policy tends to use prison as the cure for any social problem, and this has led the system to collapse.
Juan Sebastian Hernandez – Dejusticia NGO
Colombia’s government responded in 1998 to a declaration of a prison crisis by the Constitutional Court and sought to solve it by a massive expansion of prison infrastructure.
This expansion saw available places rise from 33,119 in 1998 to 45,575 in 2002 and to 76,066 in 2013, according to Dejustica.
While the response appeared to have been working initially, a massive spike in the prison population at the same time plunged the system back into crisis again.
According to prison authority INPEC, the prison population went from 44,439 people in 1998 to 120,032 in 2013, meaning that it almost tripled in 15 years as a result of the heavy-handed penal system.
By 2011, the prison population was growing at a faster rate than the state’s ability to construct new prisons, according to the National Planning Department (DNP).
“In Colombia, punitive increases between 2000 and 2016 have been high. As a study by the Ministry of Justice, the DNP and the Criminal Policy Advisory Commission shows, criminal laws have tended to increase penalties excessively, indiscriminately and disproportionately, and to restrict the use of alternative measures to incarceration,” explained Hernandez.
While the Constitutional Court warned again in 2013 and 2015 about the escalating crisis, successive governments have failed to improve conditions or consider alternative solutions to increasing prison sentences.
The solution, in the eyes of the Constitutional Court, was not the construction of more prisons as intended by the government, but the release of low-level offenders to make room for those that truly require institutionalization.
The court also indicated that, if major improvements were not made to the aforementioned institutions within the three-year time period, they will be closed, possibly exacerbating the overcrowding of other prisons within the system.
Four years later, the crisis in the Colombian prison system seems to be continuing unabated and despite concession by the current administration that change is need, no necessary reforms have been passed.
Although the new government’s plan recognizes that a reform is necessary, the bills that seek to reduce overcrowding (148 of 2016 and 014 of 2017) have not been approved , while the Government and the Prosecutor General propose higher sentences. The crisis in prisons is nothing other than the failure of years of a “stick policy”, and its cost has been the human dignity of thousands of people.