An escape attempt by detainees held at a Medellín police station shows that overcrowding in Colombia’s prisons has affected smaller law enforcement facilities, which are increasingly forced to hold prisoners for long periods.
On May 28, inmates at the La Candelaria police station confronted authorities and attempted to escape a holding cell by tearing down a gate that connects to a public road, El Tiempo reported.
Though the escape attempt was quickly thwarted, Medellin’s top cop said that the city’s 21 police stations, which currently hold some 1,670 inmates, do not have the logistical or sanitary conditions to accommodate such large numbers.
Medellín authorities have seen a rash of riots and escape attempts this year. In February, the La Candelaria police station was the scene of a riot, and four inmates escaped from a jail run by an investigative police unit.
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In January, about 100 inmates rioted in a holding cell at the headquarters of the Attorney General’s Office. The cell was meant to hold only 30 people.
Prisoners’ rights activist Jorge Carmona told news station Canal 1 that “there are people who have spent a year in police stations, begging, doing what they have to do to get out of there.”
“Internally, it’s chaos, there is great danger, those at risk include the prisoners, the police guards and prosecutors,” he added.
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Colombian authorities are well aware that prisons are overcrowded and pose a security risk. The country’s prisons have long been incubators for organized crime, with many criminal groups continuing to manage criminal enterprises from behind prison walls while also profiting from an openly corrupt penitentiary system.
The overcrowding and its consequences now extend to holding cells in police stations. In 2017, police cells were 575 percent over capacity. The cells are only meant to hold inmates in transit awaiting judicial proceedings, after which they are supposed to be transferred to a prison facility.
But officers are finding themselves with prisoners in their long-term care, a job for which they are not trained and which draws them away from other duties.
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Large jails have also been the scene of prison breaks. A March escape from the maximum security prison in Bellavista in Antioquia department led to revelations that the facility lacked enough guards to keep watch over thousands of prisoners.
And a report by Colombia’s Competitiveness Council found that the country was lagging behind its regional counterparts in the credibility, efficiency and quality of its justice system, which includes prisons.
Prison overcrowding is a problem throughout much of Latin America, as seen in Uruguay, Ecuador, Brazil and Mexico, among others. But the situation in Colombia, particularly in Medellín, also bears some comparison to Venezuela, where police stations have fallen under the control of gangs.
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