“They never let us forget that we are deprived of our freedom”
In the Good Pastor prison for women, Bogotá, Colombia, 42 guerrilla fighters are imprisoned in a high-security unit known as Patio Six. Daily life there is characterised by neglect, overcrowding, and ritual humiliation. Yet they remain hopeful about the Colombian peace process, which may one day grant them amnesty for their part in the country’s long-running conflict.
In Colombia, the church and the armed forces are two of the most important and influential institutions. They claim to provide the country with protection and moral leadership. The ‘Good Pastor’ prison for women lies in the centre of the capital city Bogotá, in between the Episcopal Conference of Colombia and the military school General José María Córdova. In this prison, there is a high security unit, ‘Patio Six’, in which 42 women reside. They stand accused of being part of the People’s Army (FARC-EP) or the National Liberation Army (ELN), guerrilla groups that together form part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The women are among some 3,000 political prisoners in Colombia. These 3,000 people have suffered doubly under Colombia’s current, tumultuous political settlement: both as combatants the internal armed conflict that has wracked the country with violence for the past 60 years, and as detainees in one of the worst carceral systems in the world.
Colombian prisons have made national and international news for the past couple of years due to the dire conditions under which the prisoners live. The biggest issue across the board is overcrowding. The 138 prisons in Colombia have a capacity for 79,953, but as of February of 2016 there were 121,356 people incarcerated. This means that prisons are overstuffed by 51.8%; a huge difference from just five years ago, when the overcrowding was at 27%. The overcrowding in the prisons has a knock-on effect on almost all other aspects of prison life; stretching the resources for the most basic provisions, and preventing the prisoners’ access to safe and sanitary conditions. In many prisons, inmates are forced to sleep in the hallways, and those who do sleep in the cells may be sharing a 2 x 3m cell with five other people.
At the moment, the women in Patio Six do not have to deal with overcrowding. This is mostly due to their status as high-security prisoners, which means they are not mixed with the rest of the incarcerated population. In fact, they are not allowed to leave their 7m x 15m unit unless it is for a special occasion (an appointment, a trial or a scheduled visit to another jail). But despite their relative protection from the problems of overcrowding, their unique status as political prisoners presents them with a whole host of different problems to contend with.
Access to healthcare.
Throughout the country, there is a general neglect for the health of the prison population. A prisoner in the northern city of Valledupar went blind after being denied medical treatment when a drop of contaminated water got into his eye. The prisons in Colombia are filled with many such horror stories – the combined results of contracting of private companies to administer health care services; the unsanitary, precarious living conditions in the prisons; and the general disregard for the wellbeing of incarcerated people.
Out of the 42 women in Patio Six, there are 23 with serious health problems, who claim that they have not received the necessary attention – despite constantly petitioning prison management, and even attempting to draw attention to their plight by taking legal action. For the political prisoners, the effects of medical neglect can be particularly damaging, as many of them were captured in combat and have war wounds. One woman, Daniela, was shot in the head – and still has a bullet lodged where it struck. She’s had no medical examination in the three years that she has been incarcerated. Yamile was injured in a bombing five years ago, which caused her to lose part of her femur bone. She has not received any treatment and relies on her crutches for mobility. Florisenda lost mobility in her arm when her wound was left untreated.
Many complain that they are forced to wait for literally years to have surgery, or even to schedule an appointment – and that when the day finally comes, the guards and prison administration always make excuses to push it back. Due to their high-security status, the women in Patio Six must be personally accompanied by guards to leave the premises and if there aren’t any available (or if the guards simply do not feel like going) they can’t go.
Adela, the spokeswoman for the FARC-EP female political prisoners, explains that many of the issues facing the female prison population have to do with the fact that the prison system in Colombia is designed for men: “The Colombian prisons have a masculine design.” In the issue of access to health care, this design flaw is particularly obvious. There are no onsite gynaecologists or paediatricians, and – if they’re lucky – gynaecologists visit only once or twice a year as part of a travelling medical team. This means that care for pregnant women is extremely precarious. The women have almost no access to prenatal care, and nor is there any provision for paediatric care for their children once they are born.
Another area where the women’s high-security status gives them a significant disadvantage is in their access to education. Despite the amount of workshops, diploma courses and other educational opportunities that are ostensibly offered to the incarcerated population in Good Pastor Prison, hardly any of them are accessible to the political prisoners in Patio Six due to their isolation.
As many of the women who join the FARC are from the countryside, many of them don’t have access to formal education. Though some may have political training in their years in the mountains, it is extremely difficult to find regular work if they have not finished school and do not have their high school diploma.
The women of Patio Six have not let the institutional repression keep them away from getting educated, organising their own study groups and workshops within the Patio. They study whatever books they can get their hands on, and most recently they have been studying the peace agreements between the Colombian government and FARC-EP that came out of the now-failed peace talks in Havana, Cuba. The administration has attempted to block off this particular avenue of inquiry, deeming the agreements “subversive” material. Many women are also studying for their high school diploma, but the administration has not given them the chance to take the exam for the past two years, leaving them stuck, and without much hope of future employment should they be released.
“I should have the right to see my family, but I haven’t seen my children in 2 years.”
Above their own well-being within the prison, the thing that seems to cause the women the most pain is their inability to see their children and their families. The severity of the charges against the political prisoners often means that they are sent to prisons far away from where they are captured. Indeed, the majority of the guerrilla-controlled regions of the country these women call home are in the peripheral and hard-to-reach areas. This places many obstacles to poor families who don’t have the economic resources to make the journey from where they live to visit their loved ones in Bogotá.
In addition to this initial economic obstacle, the visit-scheduling system has been been modified to try and deal with the realities of prison overcrowding. In reality, these changes have only made visitation more chaotic. The days on which you are allowed to visit depend on the number your national identification card ends with. This change has meant that many family members make the hard journey, and arrive only to be turned away. There are also many restrictions on the visits for minors, so even if the prisoner’s children live close to Bogotá, it’s not a guarantee that they will be able to see them often.
A woman from Caquetá, a department in the south of Colombia, commented that in the two years she has been incarcerated in Bogotá her mother has only visited her once, and that she has not seen the rest of her family. They live in a far-flung rural region of the country, and this distance translates into time and money that the family simply cannot afford to sacrifice.
In general, the women denounce the way in which their rights to their family and to their children have been roundly denied. They fear that, with visits a rarity at best, their ability to maintain their familial connections and care for their children is in jeopardy.
The Right to Sexuality.
As with their health and their education, the prison administration also systematically represses the prisoners’ right to their sexuality. The women of Patio Six explained that they are allowed monthly conjugal visits. But to be able to carry out the visit, every month the women have to trawl through the laborious paperwork and navigate the institutional processes themselves. For the women whose partners are incarcerated in other cities, the visit also involves a long and humiliating journey. According to Adela, they wake up extremely early and are put in a room known as the “dog pound” or perrera while they wait to be processed. They are then subjected to a nude search in front of everyone. When the prison administration van arrives they are loaded in and shackled for the duration of the long and often hazardous journey. She points out that if there were an accident, they would not be able to help themselves to safety.
Once they arrive at the prison of their partner, they are often called “slut” and “whore” by the guards and other inmates. Finally, they have just 45 minutes to share with their partner. They try and meticulously plan those 45 minutes so they will have time to talk and be intimate, but after undergoing a day of a abuse and mistreatment it is often hard to make the most of that precious time. Additionally, the prisons do not have the proper conditions for their visits to be done with dignity. One woman recounted that when she visits her partner, they have to make a makeshift tent out of blankets to have the slightest bit of privacy.
For the women who identify as lesbian or have female partners, the restrictions are even worse. They often impede the conjugal lesbian visits with excuses of why the partner can not enter and have confusing regulations about which days are the male conjugal visits and which days are the female conjugal visits, all the while stigmatising and discriminating against the inmates and their partners for their sexual preference. Reflecting on these humiliations, one inmate commented: “Us women, we have to deal with it all.”
“We continue to be revolutionary soldiers.”
One of the clearest ways that political prisoners differ from the rest of the prison population is in their political consciousness. When they introduce themselves, they proudly identify themselves as members of the FARC-EP or ELN. Some women have been locked up for over a decade, but what helps them to resist and survive is their sense of discipline and their identity as guerrilleras. It helps them face the guards and not feel diminished as people by the mistreatment and neglect.
Yeimis is 25 years old, and a member of the National Liberation Army (ELN). She was captured 8 months ago after being a guerrilla fighter for 12 years. She joined when she was 13 years old despite objections by the ELN because of her age. She proclaimed proudly, “I have never regretted who I am. If the state does not change, I would rather go fighting.”
Yeimis’ situation as a member of the ELN is vastly different from that of her comrades in the FARC-EP. On 24 August 2016, the FARC-EP and the Colombian government signed a final peace agreement to end the armed conflict between the two actors. One of the key points referred to the status of people who are incarcerated for being part of FARC-EP. For those who have been sentenced for ‘pardonable’ crimes, their pardon will be conferred as soon as the FARC-EP lay down their arms. For those convicted of ‘unpardonable’ crimes, they will be transferred from the prisons to the ‘veredal’ (transitional) zones where demobilised FARC-EP soldiers will start the process of re-integration in society. This meant that the large majority of FARC-EP political prisoners would have been immediately liberated if the peace deal had been ratified in the plebiscite.
Unsurprisingly therefore, the news of the final peace agreement was initially positive for the political prisoners. Even for those such as Yeimis who were not specifically targeted for release, it signalled a new chapter in the relations between the government and guerrilla fighters; a change that could mean their eventual release. Nonetheless, they were always cautious not to get too excited at the prospect of their possible freedom, and did not abandon their legal battles. They commented that “the majority of the people in the countryside have been affected by the conflict and they are supporting the ‘Yes’ vote for peace, but at the same time building peace in the territories.”
Obstacles on the road to peace.
They were right to be cautious. Despite the euphoria felt across the country when the FARC-EP and the Colombian government signed the final peace agreement to end the armed conflict between the two actors on 24 August, when the peace agreement was put to a “plebiscite” on October 2nd, it failed to pass. The defeat of the peace agreements in the polls has left political prisoners from both FARC-EP and ELN with great uncertainty about their future, especially due to the fact that one of the arguments that the “No” campaign pushed strongly was that the amnesty for FARC-EP political prisoners was far too lenient. This was the sole hope for the incarcerated members of this guerrilla group.
Since 2 October, the national government and the FARC-EP negotiating team have been in meetings and dialogues in an attempt to salvage the four years of peace talks and agreements, but the future is uncertain.
On 10 October, the ELN peace delegation and the president of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos announced that official peace talks with the guerrilla group would begin on 27 October, in Quito, Ecuador but it would depend on the ELN liberating the hostages they had. When the day came, despite a general feeling of hopefulness across the country, the peace delegation from the national government did not turn up to the negotiations, supposedly because the ELN had not released former congressman Odin Sanchez from captivity.
Both parties released a joint press release reiterating their commitment to the talks and outlining the steps that they would take with the International Committee of the Red Cross to ensure the liberation of Sanchez. And it seems like progress could still be made. One of the major complaints about the peace talks with the FARC-EP was the lack of space for civil society to participate in crafting the terms of the deal. In an attempt to rectify this error, one of the six agreed points in the agenda for the ELN-government talks is specifically this kind of public participation. Many people from Colombia’s social movements and organised public sectors of society view this move as a commitment to the construction of real peace, reaffirming the reality that peace does not only come by the demobilisation of an armed group, but by the reconstruction of society as a whole.
Despite the dawning uncertainty that faces the political prisoners in Colombia, they remain in high spirits; this is not the first time in Colombian history that peace talks have not gone as planned, and for many it was always a real possibility. For now, they will have to wait and see what comes out of the current dialogues with the government, and hope that the agreements go forward. Members of the ELN and the FARC-EP alike remain convinced that a peace deal – and their freedom – is still possible. “Peace is very necessary”, said Yeimis. “I don’t want my sons to live in this war like I have. And from the insurgent organisations, we are ready to say yes to peace.”