Colombia's national prison agency announced it will stop putting new prisoners in the country's largest correctional facilities due to severe overcrowding, in what could turn into a critical citizen security situation if no resolution is agreed upon soon.
The head of Colombia's National Prison Institute (INPEC) union declared on January 7 they would no longer allow any new inmates to enter the country's four biggest prisons beginning early next week, reported Señal Radio. The decision is due to chronic overcrowding and disputes over the allotted income for INPEC employees, according to El Pais.
"What we want is a reasonable prison system; if the facilities were properly maintained, we would have better working conditions," one prison guard told Caracol Radio.
Since August, INPEC has refused to accept anyone from Colombia's temporary detention facilities who has not yet been convicted of a crime, reported El Tiempo. Recently, 25 people being held at one of these temporary holding cells in capital city Bogota managed to escape. Severe overcrowding in these facilities also recently led to riots in the coastal city Barranquilla.
With 117,018 prisoners behind bars, Colombia's penitentiary system is operating 53 percent above maximum capacity, according to information compiled by El Tiempo.
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In addition to infringing on the human rights of prisoners and acceptable working conditions for guards, the severe overcrowding in Colombia's correctional facilities could result in a legitimate security threat for the general population. The decision by INPEC to refuse any new inmates -- in addition to stopgap solutions such as mass prisoner releases -- in order to ease the bottleneck in Colombia's prisons may enable potentially dangerous criminals to remain at large, while minor offenders serve unnecessarily long sentences. Colombia's high impunity rate for arrested suspects -- including those with multiple captures -- only exacerbates this problem.
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Overcrowding has also turned many prisons in Latin America into hubs for organized crime. This phenomenon helped spur the creation of the First Capital Command (PCC) gang in Brazil, while harsh penal policies in Central America have enabled street gangs, or maras, to flourish in the Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala). While Colombia lacks the powerful prison-based gangs seen in other countries, in the past its prisons have sheltered powerful warlords and drug traffickers who have continued their operations even while behind bars.