Sunday, September 20, 2009

Colombia's Most Notorious Prison: La Modelo Aka La Picota

Colombia has a national population of 44,050,000. According to the International Centre for prison studies 60,158 are incarcerated in prison. The country is an atmosphere that breeds corruption. This can be largely attributed to the cocaine trade. Drug Cartels fight for control of the drug trade which leads to violence. Prison population has swelled and the country does not have enough facilities to accommodate. As many as 19 people are smashed into a cell fit to hold four. In certain instances inmates are forced to lie on top of one another. Since 1992 there has been almost a 50 % increase in prisoners. My paper will focus on Colombia’s outdated prison system and its changes to create a more modern facility.

The most notorious prison within the country is La Picota AKA “La Modelo”. The facility is located in the capital of Bogota. It houses approximately 5,000 prisoners who are among their countries most violent offenders. The North part of the prison consists of the Left Wing Rebels which include the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). In the Southern end of the facility, right wing government supporters and paramilitaries have control. The area that lies in between is where most of the violence and killings happen. The gangs basically run the prison. There is a dungeon one gang has in operation. There are also established restraunts throughout the facility. Many are run by prison gangs but there are several run by individuals. These individuals must pay the tax to the gang monthly. One restraunts run by the FARC gives free food to its members. A factor that makes this establishment so dangerous is that prisoners have access to guns including those that are automatic. Prison guards do not carry weapons except the guards in the watchtower. Most guns are smuggled into the prison and the going rate is $ 1,000. The corruption that exists in prison staff allows inmates use cell phones and even have satellite communication. This allows them to still run their criminal operations, which include drug dealing, kidnapping and extortion. There is a practice known as the “Ciambiazo” or big change. An Inmate changes places with an outside visitor who is paid around 2,000-5,000 dollars.

There have been significant events in the prison that has lead to changes. On April 27, 2005 there were 25 inmates killed in a fight. The event captured attention worldwide and eventually lead to a prison documentary by the Discovery Channel. The next event occurred June 21, 2001, where 100 inmates escaped after members of the FARC blew hole in the wall. Soon after FARC commander Jorge Briceno stated, “The group had claimed responsibility and that it would continue to carry out such actions to free captured comrade from jail”. What followed was the forced resignation of Fabio Campos Silva, who was Director of the Colombia National Penitentiary Institute (INPEC). Inpec has been criticized for being corrupt. As of March 700 out of 4,00 employees have been fired at LA Modelo prison that includes five Chief Wardens. With so much negative attention on the prison there have been several reforms. A three month “Prison emergency,” was ordered. INPEC was also given the authority to fire guards suspected of corruption. Also INPEC arranged the transfer of several inmates to other jails 100 have been moved so far. All shops and restraunts in the prison are closed. Security has also been beefed up but guns still exist throughout. A special antenna has been placed near the facility to stop all incoming and outgoing cellular phone signals along with satellite communication.

The government is now building several modern high risk jails which are planned to hold high risk inmates. Some of the funds for the new jails have been provided by the U.S. government. Our government has long shown their unease towards Colombia’s Criminal Justice system. In March of this year La Modelo was closed due after a human rights inspection from the Attorney General. The Human Right Individuals who inspected noted many of the inmates suffered from ill health and psychological orders. Also noted was that the outdated facility had little access to rehabilitation programs. From what I have learned this semester is that rehabilition is essential in reducing the amount of recidivism among offenders. Several unjust treatments also have been discovered, powerful criminals with money are able to use their money to get smaller sentences along with special treatment. A convicted car thief reported to the New York Times that “Guards in the prison charged $12 for certificates of good behavior were duly processed and about $ 350 to allow an inmate out on furlough.” He also said,” guards charged prisoners to be transferred to better cells, to sleep alone and even make local calls.” This kind of special treatment in exchange for money has been going on for years. Drug dealers with money are given little time in prison.

Despite our efforts to help Colombia create a more modern Criminal Justice and penal system there is a long ways to go. There have been no thorough reforms within its prisons. 54% of the prison budget spent to house maximum security inmates, who only account for 1 percent. This absolutely has no logic behind it. Some prisoners go starving while other feast. Setting up a budget coupled with a broad set of reforms that include some form of rehabilitation can prove to be beneficial. There is a long way to go and a lot of improvement to be made for Colombia’s prison system to become more modernized. It is obvious the country cannot accomplish this task alone but with the help from countries such as the U.S. it is achievable.