Colombia has released close to 11,000 prisoners over the last four months, a measure aimed at reducing massive overcrowding in the country’s prisons, but one that will likely serve as only a temporary fix.
Colombia’s Congress approved reforms to the penal code in December 2013 that allowed prisoners who met certain conditions to petition for early release. Since the reforms went into effect on January 20, close to 2,000 prisoners have had their sentences suspended while another 6,596 have been released on parole and 1,572 have been granted house arrest, reported El Tiempo.
National prison institute Inpec is currently processing more than 15,000 additional applications for early release. In order to be eligible, prisoners must have completed three-fifths of their sentence, demonstrated good behavior, and have strong family and social ties.
Although the majority of those released were jailed for crimes like theft, drug possession, and domestic violence, at least one convicted murderer has been let out of prison under the new penal code. Lady Tabares, who was sentenced to 26 years for homicide and whose childhood story was the plot of a famous Colombian movie, was released from prison in Medellin to serve the rest of her sentence under house arrest.
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Overpopulated prisons are a serious problem throughout Latin America, and Colombia is no exception. Before the recent reforms were enacted, the country’s prisons were on average roughly 60 percent over capacity, a figure that has since dropped by 4.6 percent. The country’s most overcrowded prison, in the northeast region of La Guajira, is more than five times over capacity.
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In addition to contributing to human rights violations in the region, overcrowding has led to the rise and growth of gangs like the First Capital Command (PCC) in Brazil and MS-13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador. In many cases, gang members take advantage of high prisoner-to-guard ratios and corrupt staff to continue running operations — such as extortion rings — from inside jail cells. In Bolivia, police reported in 2012 that at least 10 criminal groups were being run from within the country’s prisons.
Although changes in Colombia’s penal code have relieved overcrowding slightly, this measure is a temporary fix for a broken prison system. As the director of Inpec reported, while 16,838 prisoners have been released this year — either because of the new reforms or because they had finished serving their sentences — another 14,065 have entered the country’s prisons.
Bolivia enacted a similar measure to reduce overcrowding in 2013, with President Evo Morales signing a decree pardoning prisoners who met certain conditions and were serving up to eight years for misdemeanors.