Press Release

IACHR Expresses Sorrow over Deaths in Fires at Colombian Prison

February 21, 2014

Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses sorrow over the deaths of inmates at the Modelo prison in Barranquilla, Colombia. The IACHR calls on the State to urgently take the necessary measures to properly investigate these incidents and prevent them from happening again.

Based on information available to the public, 17 individuals died and at least 63 were injured as a consequence of a fire, which broke out at the prison facility the night of January 27, 2014, in the context of a prisoner riot. According to the information, the fire began as a result of a short circuit, which burned as a group of inmates set fire to mattresses in an effort to counteract the effect of gas cannisters, which had been hurled by prison guards. Ten individuals lost their lives the day of the fire as a result of burns and suffocation and seven others died the following week.

Widespread overcrowding in Colombian prisons has been given as one of the causes of the tragedy. According to public information, Modelo prison in Baranquilla is housing 147% more inmates than it has room for. Moreover, based on information received by the Commission, the maximum capacity of the cell block where the incidents occurred was 196 inmates and, at the time of the disturbances, 716 men were being housed in it. The Commission has noted with concern the close connection between prison overcrowding and increased levels of violence at such facilities, which have resulted in the regrettable loss of human lives, as was the case in the events reported in Barranquilla.

The IACHR reiterates that States hold a special position as guarantors of the rights of persons deprived of liberty. Consequently, confinement entails a specific and essential commitment of States to ensure the lives and safety of inmates. The duty to ensure means that States must do every thing they need to do in order to prevent situations of risk, such as the situation arising in this instance, from seriously jeapordizing the fundamental rights of inmates. Particularly, States must implement effective measures to reduce overcrowding.

The Inter-American Commssion emphasizes that States have the obligation to investigate, on their own initiative and with due diligence, all deaths of individuals who are in their custody. Furthermore, States have the obligation to conduct serious, diligent and impartial investigations of fires breaking out at prison facilities, which lead to clarification of the facts and the punishment of all persons with any degree of responsiblity and which constitute a means of reparation for the victims. Addtionally, States must provide the appropriate psychological assistance to the victims’ next-of-kin and to any survivors, who have been seriously affected.

No. 16/14