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Indians in prison, forced to change their culture

80 % of this prison population has already been convicted, 20% is in the accusation stage and 95% are men and 5% women. 60% are between 25 and 45 years old and the terms of their convictions are unknown [1]; most prisoners are from the Colombian Provinces of Cesar, Cauca, Boyacá, and Meta.

Read more: Prisons, expansion of death thresholds in Colombia (in Spanish.)

However, the statistical information to qualitatively characterize the indigenous population is scarce; for instance, becoming cognizant of what kind of tribes they belong to or how far they are from their territory or social roots. This is an issue as according to the Colombian Constitutional Court of Justice, 39 indigenous peoples are in danger of physical and cultural extinction, in other words, they have a population of fewer than 200 people and their language and ancestral traditions are on the verge of disappearing. The situation worsens by prison overcrowding and structural issues in penitentiaries, which violate fundamental rights and disregard the Colombian Constitution.

Intercultural comprehension means understanding and dialogue between equals, i.e. the government and the indigenous peoples, before the imposition of a form of perceiving the world or solve problems. In this sense, respecting the fundamental right to a previous, free, and informed consultation is a path to reach concerted public policies.

Penitentiary treatment with an ethnically differentiated approach

This kind of treatmentlooks to influence the personality and behavior of prisoners, allowing for their resocialization. However, the results have been ineffective, scarce or with little follow-up concerning inmates of the greater society, and has grave effects concerning the indigenous population.

On one hand, imprisonment isolates indigenous people and deters them of the possibility of returning and reincorporating to their community, as they have to accept rules and traditions of society, and on the other, they can negatively impact the Indian community if they are at risk of extinction or the collective cohesion impaired due to the loss of one of its members.

Listen: “ Inpec is a mafia that nobody dares touch” (In Spanish.)

The lack of contact between Indian prisoners with their families, territory, rituals, and traditions or even their authorities could produce severe individual and communitarian conflicts.

It is necessary to listen to their proposals which rely on the need to strengthen the special indigenous jurisdictions and the role of traditional authorities in defining penitentiary treatment according to their customs and traditions. These are, besides being part of one of the petitions of the indigenous movement expressed in their demand for autonomy and self-government and addressed by academics and government since 2014.

[1] This information is based on a “Right to Petition” from lawyer Jacobo Díaz Blandón, of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (Opiac, for its Spanish acronym) on October 21, 2019, to Inpec, which was solved.

Centers for Indian Harmonization

These centers have been autonomous initiatives of the indigenous peoples to exercise their jurisdiction and impose punishment and safety measures according to their customs and traditions. It is not about prisons, as they try to redirect the lives of individuals through a spiritual scope and contact with their territory and families. Therefore their structure may vary according to the structure of self-justice systems.

While in some towns of the Colombian Atlantic coast justice is applied via a tribunal, in territories such as the Province of Valle del Cauca it is applied through the Comuneros Assembly. Therefore, although they warrant dignified conditions to serve the sentence, that does not mean intramural imprisonment, but community service within the territory.

Seen from the outside, it could be said that these centers have a restorative justice approach related to reestablishing social ties.

It is not a foreign form but rooted in the tradition of the indigenous peoples and it is also constitutionally recognized.

Several rulings of the Constitutional Court have established that indigenous peoples should possess maximum jurisdictional autonomy and be able to preserve the cultural identity, as established in Ruling  T-218/15.

Furthermore: Life sentence, an unconstitutional proposal in Colombia? (in Spanish).

This means that a native Colombian involved in a legal proceeding or in face of a special indigenous jurisdiction may serve his/her sentence in the territory, cannot be exiled, has the right to serve his/her sentence, be reasonable and proportionate, and for the indigenous authorities to manage it. For all effects and purposes, and especially to open the door to ethnically differentiated resocialization (preserving the ethnic integrity and attaining cultural integration) the Centers for Indian Harmonization are useful tools for intercultural comprehension.

Proposal pertinence

These two proposals, which are by no means the total of possible solutions as the indigenous peoples have other more creative ways to take into account and are important as they contribute to mitigating the current prison crisis.

More than five years ago the government had already anticipated this and through Law 1709/14 (art. 96) granted the President of Colombia the extraordinary capabilities for six months to control imprisoned indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians penitentiary and resocialization conditions. However, this period passed without issuing the respective regulations and come to the required understanding with the indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, the T-388 Ruling Follow-up Commission in response to the reports submitted by the government has insisted on the need to include these proposals in the public policies as a way to secure constitutional minimums prevised by the Constitutional Court. For example, creating and government funding of Centers for Indian Harmonization would help lessen prison overcrowding and could offer dignified opportunities for indigenous peoples serving prison sentences.

In 2020 they hope to reopen the dialogue that began back in 2014 between the government and the indigenous people to agree on imprisonment and resocialization. They hope to get to an intercultural comprehension that harmonizes the individual and collective rights.



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