Covid-19 sparks deadly riots in Colombia’s prisons: "If the virus gets in here, we're done for"

Prisoners attempt to escape from La Modela prison (screengrab) in Colombia. The photo at the right shows our Observer’s cell in La Picota prison (photo taken by our Observer).
Prisoners attempt to escape from La Modela prison (screengrab) in Colombia. The photo at the right shows our Observer’s cell in La Picota prison (photo taken by our Observer).

Violent riots broke out in prisons across Colombia on March 21 over prisoners’ fears about the spread of Covid-19 within overcrowded detention centres.  One man incarcerated in Bogota told our team that, while the rest of the country is self-isolating in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus, prisons lack even the most basic hygiene measures.

Coordinated riots took place in 13 different detention centres across Colombia. The most violent clashes took place in La Modelo, one of the largest and most dangerous prisons in the capital, Bogota. At least 23 prisoners died in the riots and 90 people, including seven guards, were wounded. Some prisoners attempted to escape.

Numerous videos, likely filmed and posted on social media by prisoners, document both the violent clashes and escape attempts.

There is growing fear across the world about coronavirus reaching and spreading amongst incarcerated populations. Prison riots have taken place in Brazil, Italy and France over both restrictions implemented by authorities in an attempt to prevent the spread (including bans on prison visits and a halt on temporary release programs) as well as prisoners’ fears about the possibility of mass infection amongst the incarcerated.

By March 24, there were at least 306 cases of Covid-19 recorded in Colombia and at least three deaths. The entire country was put under a confinement order on March 25.


"There are six of us crammed into a cell meant for two"

Daniel, who is waiting for his extradition and sentencing, is currently incarcerated in La Picota, one of the prisons in Bogota where riots broke out [we’ve changed his name to protect his identity]. He told our team about how the poor hygiene conditions in the prison make him terrified about the spread of Covid-19.


We decided to protest in an attempt to demand that our rights be upheld and our dignity be respected. In my block, which is reserved for prisoners awaiting extradition, we just made noise by banging on the doors. So we didn’t do much. But in other parts of the prison, they protested by burning clothes and mattresses. I heard that two people tried to escape but were caught in the end.

The prison hasn’t enacted any heath and hygiene measures, not even the most basic ones. We don’t have any real medical support. The guards don’t have gloves or masks even though they come in and out of the prison. Neither do the people who deliver us food. The prison administration doesn’t provide us with anything; it’s every man for himself. In my cell, we managed to get some masks and gloves smuggled in but not everyone has that chance. And I wasn’t able to get any hand sanitizer.

If the virus gets in the prison, we’re done for. There are six of us crowded into cells meant for two. We live in extremely close proximity to each other. There are a lot of older people here. Some have even shown symptoms of the virus, but nothing is being done to have them examined.

A cell in La Picota prison. This photo was taken by our Observer.

La Picota prison. This photo was taken by our Observer.

Colombian Justice Minister Margarita Cabello says that our Observer's fears are unfounded.

“There is no sanitation issue in the prisons that could justify an uprising,” Cabello said. However, the occupancy rate in Colombian prisons was at 152% in 2017.

After videos of the riots were shared on social media, an investigation was opened to determine, according to the public prosecutor’s department, “Why prisoners had access to equipment that allowed them to share footage in real time.”

Daniel, who posted footage of the riots filmed by other prisoners, says that he mostly uses his phone to promote his business as a tattoo artist within the prison. He posts photos of his creations on Instagram.


I don’t understand how the debate could centre on the fact that we have phones. Becoming a tattoo artist saved me. It’s my work here. I want to make something positive out of this experience, which is why I share photos of my tattoos and life in prison. I’d like to do something with my tattoos when I get out.

Article by Pierre Hamdi.