U.N. calls Colombia's overcrowded prisons 'hell'
"You don't have to look for a hell anywhere else, because hell is here,"
high commissioner for human rights in Colombia, Anders Kompass, told a news
More than 54,000 prisoners are crammed into 167 prisons throughout the
torn by a 37-year-old war. A further 5,000 are being held in police stations, where
conditions are even worse, according to a joint study by the United Nations and
Colombia's official human rights agency, the People's Defense Office.
Government figures show that 49 percent of prisoners have received no sentence
all. According to the study, the situation is even worse because 76 percent of
prisoners have yet to receive a definitive sentence.
Sewage systems are inadequate and food is sometimes contaminated by feces,
according to the report.
Inmates whose immune systems had been weakened by AIDS were forced to live
in close quarters with prisoners suffering other infectious diseases, it said.
The head of the People's Defense Office, Eduardo Cifuentes, said the police
concentrate on pursuing serious crime instead of packing overcrowded prisons
with petty offenders.
Wealthy or powerful prisoners obtained the best cells, and the poorest
lived in passages or in shacks made of cardboard in the open air, said Raquel
Yrigoyen, one of the report's authors.
"We shouldn't try and cover up poverty by throwing the poor in jail," said
referring to Colombia's poverty rate of about 50 percent.
Colombia's prisons are notoriously anarchic and violent, and in some jails
guards only occasionally enter areas where there are prisoners, to confiscate
weapons and check to see who is still inside.
Rival prison gangs use guns and explosives against each other, and the
of the country's war are often reproduced behind prison walls, with leftist guerrillas
in a rivalry with far-right paramilitaries.
Copyright 2001 Reuters. All rights reserved.