Halfway through the allotted time in the Colombian women’s prison El Buen Pastor, I packed my gear and flounced off. The female warden, who had the demeanor of one of Hitler’s furies, looked surprised. “Estoy harto! I am fed up,” I raged at the battle-axe; “This is one big lie, sheer propaganda!” “But this is a prison,” she rebuffed. I: “Exactly! And you are trying to make it look as if it consists of workshops and education centers only.”
That was a bit unfair of me, since in this and two previous prisons, Colombia’s penal administration INPEC’s PR ladies had also offered me to photograph sports fields, and a garden. That is what Colombian prisons are made of – or that is what I am supposed to make you believe.
The overcrowded, filthy patios, the bullet holes in the guards’ cabin, things that I saw but was not allowed (and unable) to photograph… All delusions, I guess. Not to mention what some of the prisoners told me about the circumstances. Unless they pay the patio’s bully, an inmate who shares his pay with the INPEC guards, they don’t get a bunk in a half-way safe cell and must sleep on the floor in a congested corridor. They have to pay not to be beaten up or robbed of their few belongings. They have to pay to be allowed to buy some extra food or toiletries. On the other hand, if they have money, they can bribe the guards and smuggle drugs, weapons and mobile phones (a.o. used for extortion) into the prison. In April 2015, a man convicted for killing four children escaped with the help of guards.
You, my friends, will not get to see any of that. It is one thing to let Colombian media make visual reports – but foreigners: that is another matter. So no cells, no corridors in my photographs. And few inmates; we were just passing by a patio that looked like a cattle shed, when I was told that to photograph inmates would undermine their human rights. Had it been cattle in there, animal rights activists would surely have protested. And by the way, locking up animal abusers is being seriously discussed, these days.
Clearly, Colombia cares about its citizens’ human rights. A street crook who stole a mobile phone was convicted to five years; the phone belonged to an official. A perilous peddler who falsified the labels of a few bottles of shampoo and shaving cream was put away for 17 years: brand falsification, a serious crime! On the other hand, there are the former members of the FARC guerilla or the paramilitary, who have committed horrific massacres; if they surrender and confess, they get a maximum of eight years.
After months of bureaucratic dawdle, I had finally received permission to photograph in four Colombian prisons. Yes, there would be “some limitations.” But once I had arrived, INPEC tried to turn me into an unpaid propagandist…After the first prison visit, I complained to a trusted high-ranking official at the Ministry of Justice. He discussed my case with the vice-minister, only to come back and tell me that, although INPEC – which he casually described as a corrupt institute – is theoretically under this ministry, it is quite autonomous. There was nothing he or even the vice-minister of this failed state could do.
Corrupt? The last four INPEC directors were relieved because of corruption. All INPEC directors are retired military top brass. The job provides them with a nice extra buck. There are many ways to earn that, since there are many companies involved in construction, armament, food supplies and the like. And the extremely strong position of the military after 50 years of civil war makes the ministry’s authority a joke.
So here I am: in the other “Law&Order” countries – France, Uganda and the USA – I was able to produce a fair and balanced photo series. But what about Colombia in my upcoming book? I am hardly prepared to reward INPEC for its censorship, so I will have to do some hard thinking to decide on how to solve this.Meanwhile, to get an idea of what INPEC tries to hide from foreigners, just enter “carcel Colombia” in your internet browser, to see photos that Colombian photographers were allowed to make. Or the revealing Spanish tv program made possible by the unexpected collaboration of some prison employees, to the great annoyance of INPEC authorities.