I am writing from my room in Oxford; the city where I started a master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice in October of 2019. In this small room, I enjoy the privileges that student life has to offer, but it is impossible not to worry about the situation back in my own country. One of my concerns is shared by many who work in the field of criminology and criminal justice: the significant risk that the virus poses to the inmate population.

 

Image taken from my window.
The first case of COVID-19 was officially reported in Colombia at the beginning of March. When this happened, authorities actively discussed the necessary measurements to manage the situation. In such state of agitation, two scholars, Libardo Arisa and Hernán Ciprián, wrote an article warning against the danger that this news meant for prisoners in the country. 'Prisoners also cough,' they said. Arisa and Ciprián explained that with the deficiencies of the healthcare system in the overpopulated Colombian prisons, where rates of multiple diseases are significantly higher, COVID-19 could bring dramatic consequences. They argued, therefore, that drastic measurements needed to be taken, including the release of several prisoners. They also advised that other type of solutions, such as restricting visits to prisons, required careful analysis because they could lead to riots.

On the 12th of March, the government announced that visits to prisons were temporarily cancelled and other administrative measurements were taken (which aimed to improve the healthcare system for inmates). On the 18th of March, an attempted riot occurred in one prison of Bogota. Two days later, Arisa, along with scholar Fernando León Tamayo, wrote another article warning about the threat of potential riots in prisons and the necessity of releasing some inmates. On the 21st of March, a coordinated violent riot occurred in multiple prisons of the country, leaving 23 prisoners dead and 83 individuals injured (including members of prisons’ staff).

While the situation was eventually controlled, the concerns about the risk that COVID-19 meant for prisoners continued to grow. Multiple actors of the criminal justice system raised their voice pressuring the government to take an appropriate solution. On the 14th of April, the government issued ‘Legislative Decree 546,’ in response to the situation. The decree establishes that inmates who committed minor crimes, or those who are in a vulnerable condition (elderly population, pregnant women or people with underlying health conditions, among others) could temporarily serve their sentence in house confinement. While this measurement does represent an effort to manage the crisis, it has been highly criticized for one particular reason: more than 60 offences were excluded from its application with the assumption under which any individual who commits those offences is dangerous for society. Even though preserving citizens’ security is undeniably important, assuming that every individual who committed any of the excluded offences poses a threat to society is questionable. Moreover, this means that a vast portion of inmates will not have access to this measurement and must stay in prison during the pandemic outbreak. Some have argued that the decree will not have practical effects and the risk that COVID-19 represents for prisoners’ lives continues.

At the time of this writing, 30 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Colombian prisons (of both inmates and members of staff), and the effects of Legislative Decree 546 are yet to be seen.