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Colombia Prison Riot Deaths Put Spotlight on Overcrowding

Colombia Prison Riot Deaths Put Spotlight on Overcrowding

Ten inmates died and around 40 more were injured during a riot and a fire in a northern Colombia prison, highlighting chronic overcrowding in the country’s jails and prompting calls for reform.

The deaths and injuries occurred on the evening of January 27 in the Modelo prison in the Caribbean coastal city of Barranquilla, after a confrontation between inmates and guards led to the use of tear gas, rioting and a fire, reported Semana. Six inmates died at the scene, and four others en route to the hospital, while up to 43 were injured.

The cause of the deaths has not yet been confirmed. According to AFP, the fire may have been caused by prisoners burning sleeping mats. El Espectador reported police fired tear gas into areas where the fire was already burning.  

According to Semana, the prison was housing more than twice the number of prisoners it had capacity for at the time of the incident — with 1,123 inmates in a prison built for 454. The wing where the riot and fire took place was particularly overcrowded, with 731 prisoners housed in a zone intended for 196 — representing 273 percent capacity.

While AFP reported this was Colombia’s first prison riot to result in deaths since 2000, the event has drawn attention to the chronic overcrowding of the country’s jails. Justice Minister Alfonso Gomez Mendez called the event “a shame,” while the governor of Atlantico — the state where Barranquilla is located — called for prison reform.

A new prison code that entered into effect in Colombia earlier in January aims to combat this kind of overcrowding by allowing prisoners doing time for minor crimes to leave early and complete their sentences under house arrest, reported El Tiempo.

InSight Crime Analysis

While this is the first deadly riot to take place in a Colombian prison in over a decade, the country’s prison system has been no stranger to criticism in recent years. The National Prison Institute (INPEC) has come under fire for the favorable conditions enjoyed by drug traffickers and corrupt politicians, among others, leading to calls for the body to be dissolved.

Prison overcrowding is a problem throughout much of the region. The most overcrowded penitentiaries are found in Bolivia and El Salvador, while chronic overcrowding resulting in violence and prison breaks has also been noted in Venezuela, Mexico, Ecuador and much of Central America.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons

One of the key criticisms aimed at overcrowded prisons — beyond the obvious public health and human rights concerns — it that they generate extreme violence and act as excellent recruitment centers for street gangs and criminal organizations.

  • Colombia
  • Prisons