In northern Colombia, police cell blocks are crammed with prisoners awaiting trial

Prisoners in a cell in the main police station in Riohacha, La Guajira in northern Colombia in mid-May.
Prisoners in a cell in the main police station in Riohacha, La Guajira in northern Colombia in mid-May. © Defensor del Pueblo or the People’s Defender (photo blurred by France 24)

A delegation representing the Colombian Office of the Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) has released photos of prisoners, many of them ill, jam-packed one on top of another in cells in three different police stations in northern Colombia. The delegation has condemned the terrible living conditions many inmates have been subjected to for years. 

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“Sixty people in a room that measures four metres squared, we can’t even live,” says the man in this video, filmed in a cell in the main police station in Riohacha, the capital of the department of Guajira, in northern Colombia. Around twenty men could be seen in the video, some on the ground and some in hammocks. 

This video was filmed by a delegation from the Colombian Office of the Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo), a state body charged with protecting human rights, during a trip they took to La Guajira in mid-May. The agency also visited two other police posts in Maicao and San Juan del Cesar.

'Police stations were not built to house inmates over the long term so, for them, it is worse than prison'

The delegation from the Defensor del Pueblo has spoken out against the conditions in these three police stations. 

When we visited the main police station in Riohacha, 365 people were detained in two cells, each measuring 5 metres squared, and in a hallway measuring two metres squared, even though it is only fit for 80 people. The inmates there were accused of crimes ranging from theft to extortion to fraud to homicide to sex crimes. 

'The problem of prison overcrowding has now spilled over to police stations'

The problem of prison overcrowding is really connected to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before, if a person was arrested and sent to a police station, they were supposed to have a hearing within 36 hours to determine if they would be moved to pre-trial detention in a prison or not. 

However, during the pandemic, prisons stopped taking in new prisoners to limit the possibility of contagion. Even now, they accept a very small number of new people. Thus, the problem of prison overcrowding has spilled over to police stations. To make matters worse, there are very few judges in Riohacha.

In theory, those who have been arrested shouldn’t stay longer than 36 hours in police detention. But, in Riohacha, nearly all of the detainees have been there for extended periods. One man has been there for five years. 

'No doctor comes to see them'

Police stations aren’t built to house inmates for long periods so the conditions are much worse than in a prison. For example, there are no healthcare provisions, no doctor comes to see them. The police will call an ambulance only in case of an emergency. 

As a result, many of the detainees are in poor health. We saw one, who had been locked up for three years, who had kidney problems and a fever. He reported blood in his urine. We asked that he see an external doctor. But even after he did, he had to come right back to the police post.

“This isn’t how a human should be treated. I’ve been in pain for two days and they haven’t taken me out [of detention] yet.They are waiting for me to die,” says this man detained in the Riohacha police station in mid-May. He was eventually able to see a doctor but had to return back to the police station. © Defensor del Pueblo (video blurred by France 24).

Moreover, detainees are almost never able to bathe. A lot of them have skin problems and it smells terrible in the cells. 

The Riohacha City Hall provides food to detainees because it has to. But it doesn’t provide enough, which also impacts their health.

A malnourished man detained in a cell in the main police station in Riohacha in mid-May.
A malnourished man detained in a cell in the main police station in Riohacha in mid-May. Defensor del Pueblo (photo blurred by France 24).

'The detainees are shut in all the time'

Most prisons have courtyards that inmates can use. That’s not the case with police stations. So they are shut in all the time. Moreover, the police don’t have the capacity to facilitate family visits. Those who do get visits usually only manage to see their families once every six months. As a result, there are a lot of mental health issues amongst the people there.

In one of the police stations in Riohacha, there is a toilet. In the other, however, there isn’t. Inmates have to use plastic bags.  

This is the only toilet in the cell in the main police station in Riohacha. © Defensor del Pueblo (video blurred by France 24).

'They were forced to use the little cans they get food in as toilets'

The conditions are even worse in Maicao. We saw 170 prisoners in two cells with a 60-person capacity. Most of them were being kept in these two cells without toilets, so they were forced to use the little cans they get their food in as toilets. They then throw the cans out onto a patio, which smelled terrible and was full of flies. Some people were also being detained in a hangar with a toilet and others in a hallway. 

In the police station in San Juan del Cesar, there were 25 people crammed into two cells meant for five people. City government there doesn’t provide them with food, so some families bring food and the men share it amongst themselves.

This is the police station in San Juan del Cesar in mid-May. On the left are two cells where people have been detained. The photos in the centre and on the right show the interior of these cells.
This is the police station in San Juan del Cesar in mid-May. On the left are two cells where people have been detained. The photos in the centre and on the right show the interior of these cells. © Defensor del Pueblo (photos blurred by France 24).

According to the Defensor del Pueblo, nearly 21,000 people were detained in police stations across the country in May – police stations that only have a capacity of 6,983. The most overcrowded are located on the Caribbean coast, in the departments of Antioquia and Valle del Cauca.