Since the days of Pablo Escobar, Colombian prisons have shielded criminals who continue to run their business from behind bars, and the current crisis in the system is making privatization look increasingly appealing.

From its start in 1992, the National Prison Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario – INPEC) has shown little ability to keep the prison population behind bars or keep the corruption from penetrating the institution.

Guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN) have carried out massive prison breaks, blasting the walls of penitentiaries with explosives. Convicted felons enjoy a wide range of amenities, the most famous example being Pablo Escobar, who built himself a luxury detention center, dubbed “La Catedral,” in 1991. Banned items like cell phones and USB memory sticks are readily available even in maximum security facilities like Bogota’s La Picota, where visitors move freely between cells and where, more recently, one convict tried to host a banquet serving 150 hamburgers to fellow inmates and guests.

The most troubling corruption cases, however, point to a profound system failure that goes beyond the presence of cell phones. High-value criminals have simply walked out of La Picota, like the brother of slain drug lord Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo;” others have disappeared after being placed under house arrest for bogus reasons like “health problems,” as was the case with a leader of the Oficina de Enviado, alias “Kener.”

None of these irregularities — the escapes, the entry fees visitors can pay to avoid having their names appear in the prison log, the payments to secure reduced sentences and other benefits — would be possible if it wasn’t for widespread corruption of prison guards.

INPEC employs a total of 10,800 guards, and there are reportedly 8,882 ongoing investigations involving prison guard abuse. In the first half of 2011, more than 80 top prison officials were reportedly relieved from duty for unscrupulous behavior, according to the agency’s director. The INPEC officers are widely understood to be badly trained and well protected by a lobby of 34 worker unions. It is almost impossible to prosecute or sanction illegal behavior, unless a judge rules to lift union privileges, a legal process that often stalls in the courts.

As a result, most guards under investigation remain on the job, and the high impunity rate does little to discourage other personnel from joining the culture of corruption. Indeed, there are signs that the guards who do try to stay clean are threatened or even killed. In January, the head of La Picota’s maximum security wing, Jairo Veloza, was murdered, reportedly for his attempts to impose stricter discipline; another prison guard was killed in April for denouncing guard abuse.

“We need to build a new institution,” INPEC director Gustavo Ricaurte told Semana magazine in a recent interview.

The idea has gained serious traction during President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration. According to the minister of justice, INPEC will be dissolved completely and replaced with a new agency controlled by the National Police, not the Justice Ministry. Critics argue that building an entirely new institution could cost more than a billion pesos (about $566,000) and that the plan fails to account for INPEC’s 15,000 employees. But given the current state of Colombia’s jail system — the agency has gone through three directors since 2008, thanks to an assortment of scandals — killing off INPEC could be easier than trying to cure it.

However, it’s worth questioning whether placing Colombia’s 144 jails under police control would lead to improvements. Police Director Oscar Naranjo has reportedly voiced disapproval for the idea, as Colombia would then run the risk of going against the United Nations treaty for prisoner treatment, which says prison staff must work exclusively as professional prison officers. If police were to assume responsibility for security in the prisons, this could open the way for further abuse as they are trained to investigate crime, not to act as correctional officers. Putting the prison institute under police control would also mean many existing administrative positions would be wiped out. This could represent a much needed fresh start, but would also likely create a drawn-out bureaucratic struggle as the agency is built from the ground up.

The other suggestion, previously floated by President Alvaro Uribe’s administration, is to open the prison system up to privatization. The INPEC unions are dead set against such a possibility, but then the same unions have shown little interest in sanctioning corrupt guards. Allowing non-state security contractors to enter the prison could force the unions to begin holding their members more accountable. The state has done such a terrible job at running the penal system, it is hard to imagine how contracting out part of the work could be less efficient.

Privatization does present other significant risks. Contractors are no less immune to corruption than federal employees. Still, as is the case in many other Latin American countries, Colombian prisons are desperately overcrowded and in need of reform. Privatizing some prison operations could provide at least a chance of better management.

In Venezuela, a breakdown in the prison system prompted the government to announce they would begin closing prisons and letting inmates go free. This move was valid, to some extent, as a recognition that some prisoners have ended up in jail after improperly conducted investigations. In Colombia, a better solution might be to let the private sector do its job — with all the risks this entails.

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