My first accompaniment as a PBI volunteer, with the Fundación Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos (Foundation Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners) in February of this year to the maximum security prison in Valledupar, remains the most shocking and powerful experience I´ve had in Colombia. I´ll do my best to describe the experience here, but I remember how words failed me when I returned to our office in Bogota and attempted to write up a report on the accompaniment.
The first thing you notice on entering the prison is the smell. The prison reeks of urine and feces because there is only running water available for 15 minutes a day, (during the last month this has apparently been reduced to eight minutes a day) and only on the first floor of the prison towers. This means that the prisoners relieved themselves into plastic bags which they then toss into the communal spaces of the building rather than having it festering in their own rooms. The day I was there was apparently a good day; members of the Comité told us that, on previous visits, they had to cover their mouths in order to breathe. Violent confrontations are a daily occurrence due to necessity and desperation: inmates line up to collect water with a jug in one hand and improvised weapons in the other.
The second thing you notice is the overcrowding; the patios are jammed with bodies exposed to the elements, and the passageways have mattresses occupied by the bodies of recently arrived inmates who have yet to be assigned a cell. The prison guards do not enter the patios as it is simply too dangerous. As for me, the inmates all want my attention; they want to know who I am, and if I am with the Red Cross. Feeling helpless, the most I can do is shake my head and direct them to talk to the members of the Comité, who are far better placed to assist them than we are.
In the maximum security tower, the Comité interviews a prisoner in the stairwell, while I observe from a distance. These prisoners are allowed out of their cells for one hour a day. One of these prisoners, handcuffed, walks past me and shows me his arms; they are covered in self-inflicted cuts. He raises his t-shirt to show me a criss-cross of deep wounds on his stomach and chest. “Look at what I have done to myself. I have psychiatric problems and I need to get out of here,” he tells me. This form of self-harm is quite common, I am told. And it goes even further: more than one prisoner has sown his mouth shut in protest at the conditions in the prison. Other prisoners hang themselves from the walls outside of their cells in improvised cocoons (for want of a better word) made from their bedsheets. (Recently I read that this civil and peaceful disobedience by the prisoners was being countered by the guards who were making small incisions in the sheets so that the inmates would fall.)
On the morning of our visit, there is a riot in the patio of one of the towers in which two rival gangs battle for territorial control. One gang attempts to kill a man with improvised weapons. The guards use batons, shields and teargas (in a closed environment) to end the riot. My colleague is evacuated quickly from the prison; I find her later in the entrance at lunch time bleary eyed and concerned for my safety. I happen to be in a different area of the prison at the time and manage to avoid the gas completely.
As we walk out we notice two inmates scaling the bars on the outside of the tower block with ropes slung over their shoulders. The tower block is five stories high, and on reaching the fifth floor they haul up plastic containers of water. The guard casually explains that the inmates on the fifth floor are paying these men to haul the water up to them as there was no water on that floor. He also adds that men have fallen to their deaths doing this. He seemed unconcerned as it was, in his opinion, a matter between the inmates themselves. (I found myself thinking back to the fish pond I had seen earlier outside the prison ground with constant running water pouring into it.) We walk on past the conjugal visit rooms. We don’t see in but the Comité members tell us that the rooms are filthy with blood and used condoms. It was a pity I didn´t get a look in, they say.
In the afternoon, we re-enter the prison so the Comité can interview more prisoners. We pass a bloody inmate seated in the passageway with a very large head wound covered with a tiny bandage. Medical attention in the prison is an ongoing concern for the inmates as it is sparse, inefficient and slow. People are suffering as they go without their medication for days and weeks on end.
Standing off to one side during the afternoon interview, I watch at least twenty guards run at speed down the passageway with their shields and batons at the ready. Another riot? Another incident? How many of these are there in an average day, I wonder. And another thought strikesme: these guards are extraordinarily young; some look no older than 18. What is working in an environment like this day in, day out this doing to their mental health?
We leave that evening past inmates who are handcuffed and caged off separately, presumably being punished for the riot earlier on. They walk alongside us at the other side of the fence as we leave the tower, calling out, “we are humans too,” and, “look what they are doing to us.”
Once outside we travel back along the lonely road between the prison and Valledupar. The taxi driver tells us that he is always nervous when he made this journey because the road is so dangerous. People have been murdered on it in the past, which is why the Comité asks for PBI´s accompaniment on their trips to the prison. I think of the family members of the inmates who have to make the journey out to the isolated prison along this road. Most of the inmates are sent to Valledupar from distant parts of Colombia and their families simply cannot to visit them. There are also reports of deliberate harassment of family members, some of whom have traveled for days, as they try to enter the prison by the guards which frustrate their attempts to see their loved ones. Other prisoners are moved at random between Colombian prisons as a form of punishment for perceived infractions and as a means of controlling the prison population through fear.
The penitentiary in Valledupar is inspired by the US incarceration model. It´s opening was a flagship moment of US-Colombian cooperation under the banner of Plan Colombia. Right now there is a strong and growing movement in Colombia to have the Valledupar penitentiary, likened by Senator Ivan Cepeda to “un infierno” (hell) and a concentration camp, shut down for good. The Comité is leading the campaign, and you can read more about them here: http://comitedesolidaridad.com/. The latest news at the time of writing is that the Minister of the Interior and Justice, in response to the campaign´s pressure, has committed to taking certain measures such as moving 240 inmates out of the prison, changing the current director and investing 500 million Colombian pesos in an attempt to improve the conditions in the prison.
There are an estimated 7.500 political prisoners in Colombia at present. I hope the campaign is successful, I really do.