November 27, 2001

U.N. calls Colombia's overcrowded prisons 'hell'

                 BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) -- Colombia's prisons are an overcrowded
                 "hell " where most inmates have yet to receive a final sentence and are
                 crammed into filthy cells, the United Nations said Tuesday.

                 "You don't have to look for a hell anywhere else, because hell is here," the U.N.
                 high commissioner for human rights in Colombia, Anders Kompass, told a news

                 More than 54,000 prisoners are crammed into 167 prisons throughout the country
                 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 at
                 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 should
                 concentrate on pursuing serious crime instead of packing overcrowded prisons
                 with petty offenders.

                 Wealthy or powerful prisoners obtained the best cells, and the poorest and weakest
                 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 Yrigoyen,
                 referring to Colombia's poverty rate of about 50 percent.

                 Colombia's prisons are notoriously anarchic and violent, and in some jails the
                 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 battle lines
                 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.