Valledupar High Security Prison
On the evening of June 11th security guards at the high security prison in Valledupar, known as ‘La Tramacua’, led by the prison director Leopoldo Lopez Pinzon, stormed several towers of the prison. These had been peacefully occupied by prisoners since May 2nd when they began a campaign of ‘peaceful disobedience’ to highlight the intolerable conditions they endure in the prison. During the assault up to 30 prisoners were injured and four were knocked unconscious.
The prisoners had been protesting conditions in the prison, which are notorious for being the worst in the country. The prison is based on the US prison model, was designed and developed with the assistance of the US Federal Bureau of Prisons, and was built 11 years ago with US funding. Its disciplinary code is strict, and prisoners are routinely subjected to what amounts to systematic torture and cruelty. Prisoners are often punished by solitary confinement for long periods, with some enduring years of isolation. They have also reported violence by guards, particularly a practice known as ‘the street of honour’, where they are forced to walk between two rows of guards, who then kick and beat them. Electricity, food and water are also often cut off. It has also been reported that guards, sometimes in balaclavas, enter the prison blocks at night and shoot tear gas grenades into the cells of sleeping prisoners.
Medical attention is scarce, and despite the lack of air-conditioning and 40 degree temperatures, prisoners are only given access to water for 15 minutes twice a day. With this water prisoners must wash, rinse away urine and faeces, collect drinking water if possible, and wash clothes. One prisoner died earlier this year in a scramble to get water. Prisoners in the higher floors of the prison towers do not get access to water due to low water pressure, and are forced to throw their excrement through the bars of their cells. According to a report from the local health secretary, over the last 3 years samples have shown that there are traces of faeces in the food served to inmates.
The UN High Commission for Human Rights even criticised the abuses several years ago, yet nothing has been done to improve the situation.
The latest protest began on May 2nd with prisoners peacefully occupying some of the prison’s towers. One prisoner also sewed his mouth up and began a hunger strike in protest at the lack of medical attention. On June 11th the INPEC prison service ‘Rapid Reaction Group’ stormed the towers, firing tear gas and stun grenades, spraying pepper spray and beating prisoners. One tower was targeted by at least 20 tear gas grenades, causing some prisoners to faint from suffocation.
Some of the prisoners who had tied themselves to railings on the towers were pushed off them onto mattresses piled below. Others were severely beaten during the operation that lasted for 8 hours. Prisoners in neighbouring towers heard screams and cries begging for mercy, and saw some prisoners being shackled hand and foot before being led away. One prisoner, Jose Gregorio Diaz, has not been seen since the attack. Four other prisoners were initially thought to have been killed after their bodies were seen being carried out of the towers in sheets. It later transpired that the four were unconscious with some of them in the prison clinic and one man with severe head injuries in Valledupar hospital.
Officially, the government recognized the validity of the protest, but at the same time, the authorities acted with brutality. The spokespeople of the prisoners’ human rights committees were transferred or put into solitary confinement and the towers themselves were stormed.
Valledupar prison has the highest number of investigations and disciplinary procedures of any prison in Colombia; it also has the highest number of ‘protective actions’ (a constitutional mechanism meant to ensure constitutional rights are observed) lodged by the prisoners themselves, as well as the highest degree of impunity for the prison guards. On June 13th a commission of parliamentarians, government officials, and NGO representatives will be visiting Valledupar prison as a result of the peaceful protest carried out by the prisoners.
According to opposition politician, Congressman Ivan Cepeda, visiting Valledupar Prison ‘is a visit to the depths of hell.'
Monday, 13 June 2011