By Catalina Gil Pinzón & Isabel Pereira Arana
What does the coronavirus crisis show us about drug policy in Colombia? In this article, we reflect on how Colombia's highly punitive drug policies have fueled the prison crisis, which has escalated with the spread of COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought attention to the shortcomings our society has been facing, including weaknesses in our healthcare system, gender-based violence that increased during quarantine, high levels of informal labor, and the challenges of online education in rural settings. There is a demonstrable need for better policies to shore up these issues. However, little has been said about the drug policies that govern us—policies that have high cost and a limited effect—and the current need for a transition to evidence-based policies with a focus on human rights and public health.
This pandemic is also shining a light on a subject usually resigned to the outer limits of public debate: how our punitive drug policy fuels the country's prison crisis—a crisis that has escalated with the spread of COVID-19. Addressing this issue is also particularly relevant in the wake of Decree 546 of 2020, which provides measures to alleviate overcrowding in prisons during the pandemic, with the exclusion of drug offenders.
As of April 14th, according to figures from the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (Inpec), in Colombia there are 120,885 persons deprived of liberty in 132 prison facilities. Collectively, these facilities have a theoretical capacity of 80,928. Comparing these two figures shows an overcrowding of 49.37%. Yet, this is not a new crisis, quite the contrary. Since 1998, the Constitutional Court has declared the country's prisons to be in an Unconstitutional State of Affairs due to their overcrowding and the deplorable conditions inside the penitentiaries.