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Colombia: People deprived of their liberty in State prisons

10-07-2013 Feature

People detained in State prisons suffer the consequences of poor access to health services and education, crowded conditions and separation from their families and loved ones.

During a visit to a Colombian detention facility, an ICRC delegate (centre) 

During a visit to a Colombian detention facility, an ICRC delegate (centre) talks to an inmate to check on his conditions of detention.
© CICR / D. Duarte

For the thousands of Colombians living in the country’s detention facilities, the days are long and space is reduced to “inside” or “outside.” The day-to-day conditions of many of them are difficult, with poor access to health care and education, overcrowding and separation from their families and loved ones.

Since it first started visiting detainees in Colombian prisons in 1969, the ICRC has championed efforts to achieve the goal of ensuring that those detained in connection with the conflict and the rest of the prison population enjoy conditions of detention and treatment that comply with the rules of international humanitarian law and meet other nationally and internationally recognized minimum standards.

There are a host of challenges to be addressed. A look at life inside Colombia’s prisons reveals the persistence of problems such as overcrowding, difficulties in maintaining regular contact with families and loved ones, and poor access to health care.

The ICRC has also taken on the challenge of rescuing prisoners from oblivion and, in 2012, continued its work to restore and maintain family ties. The fact that prisoners are often sent to facilities far from their homes and then constantly moved about makes it difficult for families to stay in touch and seriously affects reintegration into society and their quality of life after they are released.

In 2012, overcrowding continued to be one of the main obstacles to ensuring decent conditions for men and women in prison. Over the past 10 years, the number of inmates has doubled, so that access to basic services, such as health, water, hygiene, sufficient space and time outdoors, is not guaranteed.

The situation of vulnerability is even worse for the 8,947 women currently in prison, particularly those who are pregnant. They have limited access to specialized health care, particularly gynaecological care and paediatric care for their children who are living in prison with them.

The ICRC welcomes the significant reform of the legal and penal system initiated by the Colombian government and the preparation of a new penal corrections code incorporating the recommendations made by the ICRC, which is due to be brought before Congress for debate.

The ICRC’s humanitarian response

As part of its humanitarian work in State detention facilities, the ICRC visits people deprived of their liberty to assess the conditions of detention, the treatment of prisoners and the observance of judicial guarantees. In 2012 alone the ICRC made 161 visits to 67 State prisons. Between January and December 2012 the ICRC visited detention facilities holding over 90,000 of Colombia’s 113,884 inmates, that is, almost 80 per cent of the country’s total prison population.

Based on information provided by the authorities, the ICRC monitored the situation of 3,623 detainees, including 1,995 who received regular individual visits. This direct and confidential dialogue with detainees enables the ICRC to gain an accurate impression of the situation in prisons and formulate humanitarian recommendations to address the real needs of detainees.

Based on the findings of the assessments, the ICRC took action focused on key issues, including specific confidential recommendations, which were submitted to the relevant authorities.

Between January and December 2012 the ICRC made 115 verbal representations concerning individual cases and general issues. On 10 occasions, following visits to detention facilities, the ICRC made written representations to strengthen dialogue on the treatment of prisoners and prison conditions with the National Corrections Institute (INPEC), the President’s Office and the Ministry of Justice.

In recent years, the ICRC’s work in this area has combined individual attention for detainees with the submission of recommendations to the authorities, with a view to improving conditions for all prisoners in terms of water and sanitation, infrastructure, health care and judicial guarantees.

The ICRC carried out six visits to detention facilities to assess their maintenance systems and drew up a report on the subject, containing practical recommendations on how to improve them. It also shared its concerns about the detainees’ access to health-care services with the authorities and put forward recommendations on this subject, following visits to 10 detention facilities, where structural problems were identified.

The ICRC’s dialogue with the authorities in 2012 included verbal representations to the Colombian Family Welfare Institute about conditions of detention for juvenile delinquents, urging the relevant authorities to coordinate efforts to provide education and reintegration opportunities for these young people. Over the year, the ICRC visited five juvenile detention facilities holding 872 young people.

In 2012 the ICRC, with the support of the Colombian Red Cross, continued its programme of arranging family members to visit detainees. The ICRC provided financial assistance to cover travel expenses, so that 1,408 people in detention facilities located far from their homes could receive visits from their families. Another 47 detainees were able to re-establish contact with their families through Red Cross messages. The ICRC continued working with the government to promote a policy that would provide for detainees to remain in facilities near their homes and their loved ones.


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