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Colombia: State must take appropriate measures to protect prison population from COVID-19 epidemic

    Photo credit: DANIEL MUNOZ/AFP via Getty Images
    March 24, 2020

    In response to the protest organized on 21 March by people deprived of their liberty in several Colombian prisons, who were calling for efficient measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which resulted in at least 23 deaths and 83 people being injured in Bogota’s “La Modelo” Medium Security Prison and Penitentiary, Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said:

    “In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic that confronts us, there are growing concerns about the precarious situation of people deprived of their liberty across the Americas. In Colombia, overcrowded prisons make it impossible to isolate people who may have contracted the virus. In addition, limited access to health services and hygiene products, and the lack of constant water supplies, increase the risks of exposure to infection and affect recovery conditions.”

    “We must leave no one behind in the face of this pandemic. The Colombian government must immediately implement a strategy for the prevention of infection among the prison population, including a strategy to reduce overcrowding. To this end, it should consider the release of people in provisional detention and the early or conditional release of prisoners at risk. Likewise, the authorities must carry out a thorough, impartial and independent investigation into the use of force during the control of the protest and the reasons that left multiple people dead and injured in order to guarantee access to truth, justice and reparation for the victims and their families.”

    According to a report by the Ombudsman’s Office, Colombian prisons are more than 50% overcrowded. A total of 121,670 people are being held in Colombia's 134 prisons, when they only have a capacity of 80,763. In light of this, the National Prison Movement (Movimiento Nacional Carcelario) warned that an outbreak of coronavirus within the prisons would be very dangerous, since they do not have sufficient facilities or tools to ensure hygiene and other appropriate prevention measures for everyone there.

    States have an obligation to guarantee the right to health of all people deprived of their liberty, and to ensure that they have access to the same standards of health care as those available in wider society. The Colombian government must take all appropriate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within detention facilities, and in the event of its spread, ensure that people deprived of their liberty can access specialized medical care without complications. In addition, it should allocate specific funds and resources exclusively to guarantee the implementation of health and hygiene measures within detention centres.

    To reduce prison overcrowding, the authorities should consider granting the release of people in pre-trial detention and early or conditional release of prisoners at risk in the event of contagion, including older people and those suffering from underlying medical conditions or with weak immune systems.

    For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Lucy Scholey, Media Relations, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-853-2142, lscholey@amnesty.ca