Bogotá, Colombia. For decades, the megalopolis has been fighting
against cultural decline, against the ever-widening gap between rich
and poor. Twenty-seven percent of the city’s eight
million inhabitants live below the poverty line. The biggest fight – the fight against drugs. No country is better known for narcotics than
Colombia. But a change is underway here, too: Colombia
is transforming from a country of drug producers, into a country of drug users. The cost of drugs is steadily declining, and
the rate of addiction is rising. And with it criminal activity, as that’s
the only way most people can get money for their next high. A vicious circle, which with great likelihood
ends here – in one of the toughest prisons in Colombia: Carcel Distrital. A daily struggle for survival takes place
behind these walls. A struggle with guards and other inmates,
and with oneself. One thousand prisoners are serving sentences
here or awaiting a verdict. Most of them – sex offenders, dealers, or
thieves. They are in control here. “I’m in charge of the yard.” Brutal altercations are a part of everyday
prison life. “There are occasional stabbings in the cells.” And they leave their mark. “I was cut by the knife. My shirt was all bloody, and someone threw
it away.” Common causes of problems: drugs and money! Most of the inmates can’t get by without
drugs! And the guards can do hardly anything about
it. “No one! No one pays for anything here.” The inmates play by different rules: “If you don’t want to pay, we won’t
do anything anymore. It’ll stay dirty here.” The most difficult struggle is the struggle
with oneself. “If we don’t get him fixed, I know he’ll
try to commit suicide again.” A struggle that many people lose! Five in the morning. The streets outside are quiet. It’s different behind the walls – the
walls of this penitentiary. The guards have a lot to do today: they have
to process 50 new prisoners. They’ve been transferred here from an overcrowded
jail. One of them: 22-year-old Diego de Jesus [Dee-aygo
de Hay-zoos]. This is his second time in prison – serving
a five-year sentence. He doesn’t plan to come back again. “I have to think positive. I want to get out of here. It’s full of difficult situations that you’ve
got to deal with. It’s also hard because you’re separated
from your family.” Diego first went to prison at the age of 15. He served three years for theft. His crime this time: theft and illegal possession
of a firearm. He’s already spent 17 months in other prisons. His transfer was a surprise. “I had to pack quickly. So I wasn’t able to pack all my things.” Each prison has its own rules. What was allowed in his last prison is not
necessarily allowed here in the penitentiary! That’s why many new arrivals have things
with them that they’re not allowed to keep. “That’s prohibited!” “I forgot.” SIM cards, however, are prohibited in ALL
prisons. The new arrivals are extremely creative in
their attempts to smuggle things into the prison. Things that make their lives in jail easier
or safer. “We’ve found scissors like these hidden
quite well inside clothing. Prisoners can use them to hurt others or themselves.” That’s how problems are dealt with here
in jail. So it’s important to search the new arrivals
as carefully as possible. Despite the jail’s strict rules, the prisoners
are allowed to bring small personal items with them that have no material value. “This is from my wife and son. My son died. He’s dead.” It’s not the first painful loss he’s had
to bear. Diego lost his parents when he was still a
child. He was raised by his grandparents. He got to know the brutal side of life early
on – like many inmates here. Fertile soil for a broken path – towards
a life of crime. The 50 new arrivals have to be processed. It will take about twelve hours. But not all of them will stay here. If the upcoming examinations reveal that an
inmate is ill – either physically or mentally – he gets sent back to the other jail. At the same time, the lights go on in one
of the men’s cellblocks. Every day, the nearly 1,000 inmates get up
at 5 a.m. and are locked back in at 5 p.m. In those twelve hours, they are only allowed
to be in the yard. And there, he’s in charge: 23-year-old Nicolas. “Water, God be with you! Thank you! Nicolas has been serving a sentence here for
robbery for one and a half years now. It’s his second time in prison. He knows how he has to behave behind bars
in order to survive. “I’m in charge of the yard. There’s lots of unrest and no order. I’ve seen lots of fights, and I’ve won
a couple too. As the boss on this cellblock, Nicolas has
many duties. “This pavilion has thieves, and also some
sex offenders. I have to intercede to make sure they don’t
go after one another.” Leaders and gangs are prohibited here, but
factions nevertheless manage to emerge and take control. They take care of a few things and maintain
order, but they also shake down their fellow inmates when something doesn’t suit them. This, in turn, alarms the guards. In total, the prison has 150 guards, 18 junior
officers, and three lieutenants. They make sure the inmates feel the necessary
harshness and discipline. Still, there are daily altercations. The reason: boredom or power struggles. That’s why all the guards always carry batons
and handcuffs. “Sometimes there are knife fights in the
cells in the morning.” “What do you want me to do? What do you want? We’re going, but you know…” The potential for conflict in the jail is
very high. Many hardened criminals are confined in a
small space. They nearly 1,000 inmates are divided into
six cellblocks. One women’s cellblock, and five men’s
cellblocks. Nicolas is sitting in the yard for those prisoners
who’ve already been sentenced. The other four are for male inmates awaiting
a final sentence. The back part of the prison contains the kitchen,
the section for solitary confinement, and the workshops in which certain inmates work
for four hours during the day. The smaller building is for the prison’s
administrators. This is also where visitors check in and new
prisoners are processed. Diego, the new inmate, must wait for one hour
before his processing continues – penned up with 25 other newbies. This is the third prison he’s been in, and
each one is different in its own way. In the last prison, the inmates didn’t have
to wear standard prison clothing. But here they do! “You’ve got to start over. That’s normal. Like when you start a new job, you’ve got
to learn everything over again. Where you can stand, what you can do. How things work.” The prisoners are allowed to have one change
of clothing in their cells. They wear it on wash day. Otherwise they are always required to wear
the orange prison uniform. No prisoner should be distinguishable from
the others. Individuality is not tolerated here. “You can bring toiletries with you. You have to wear a light undershirt. You can take a few things out of the bag to
take with you: toiletries, foot powder, deodorant, toothpaste, razors. Please take all these things out now.” The inmates aren’t allowed to take anything
else. Nor could they. Four prisoners have to share a six-by-ten-foot
cell. Each cell has a toilet and a sink. The beds: four concrete slabs with mattresses. Each prisoner has his own small shelf for
personal items. They’re never even supposed to have the
opportunity to feel comfortable. Now it’s time for the next step in Diego’s
processing. The guards have take fingerprints from every
prisoner. It’s not enough for the files to simply
be transferred from the other prison. For the fingerprints could have changed, for
example due to scars. But the guards take fingerprints not only
from those who are new to the prison, but also from inmates who leave the prison. Like Jonn Fernando, who is being taken to
the hospital for an examination. But there’s a problem: “You have to wear the orange shirt neatly
and be shaved. You haven’t shaved. You can’t go to the examination without
being decently shaved.” “I was cut by the knife. My shirt was all bloody and someone threw
it away.” Jonn Fernando has been here for three years. He shot someone during a robbery. „This is jail!“ A couple days ago he got into a fight with
another inmate. Jonn Fernando seriously wounded him. For many prisoners, violence is the only way
to survive here. „All the prisons here in Colombia, they
are tough. For sure. If you don’t see what you’re doing, even
they can kill you, you know. Probably you can’t get out of here, you
know. That’s why you always have to been looking
out, where you walking, who you looking, who you talking to, you know, all the time, you
gotta be looking out, looking out, all the time, all the time. This is already Jonn Fernando’s fourth time
in jail. His body bears the marks of the years he’s
served – in the form of scars and tattoos. „This one I’ve been making in Mexico. It means God bless you! Never happens again. This one, it means a fight with two guys,
in Mexico, too in jail. One of them is dead. The other one, I cut the eye. And the Colombian flowers that come off from
the Mexican…from the Mexican skull…And my stars: three times in jail, three times
be out!” Jonn Fernando is a notorious thief, and he
has no compunction about using weapons. That’s how he earns his living, and he hopes
to make a lot of money. Many of the inmates never learned any other
way to make a living. It’s the easiest way, albeit a hard one
that usually leads directly to prison. Jonn Fernando is leaving the prison walls
for the first time in three years. Naturally, he is heavily guarded – as is
the case with every prisoner transport. There is a great danger of escape AND a risk
that accomplices outside the jail will try to free the prisoners. Whereas the guards usually only carry batons,
here they protect themselves with bulletproof vests and a gun. So far, all attempts to escape or to free
prisoners has been thwarted. Such transports take place every day. Inmates often pretend to be sick in order
to get out and then smuggle things back in. Colombia is a country in which bribery is
normal. This is how many prisoners obtain contraband
from the hospital, which they then smuggle into the prison. And to prevent this, the inspections are very
thorough. Even though it’s a prison, there are still
drugs here. Many of the inmates are addicted or take drugs
to make their everyday lives more bearable. Since the guards don’t always find everything,
drug-sniffing dogs are used. Diego, the new inmate, knows that the first
hours in prison are decisive. “You can’t cause problems. If you do… then you have even more problems. You have to behave really well in order to
get released early. And when I get out, I want to help my grandmother.” New inmate processing also includes a medical
exam. Anyone found to be sick is not allowed to
have contact with the other inmates. The risk of infection is too great. At 5:45, the guards close the cells for twelve
hours. From now on, the prisoners must stay in the
yards of their respective cellblocks. There is no opportunity to spend time alone,
find peace and quiet, or enjoy privacy. As he does every morning, Nicolas, the boss,
marks his territory. Fourteen people belong to his gang. Each has his own jobs – handed out by the
boss, of course. “Buddy, help with the cleaning. Get out of the way so they can clean. Clear the court. Thanks.” The prison has rules and routines, but the
prisoners expand on them… in their own way. “Some people clean in exchange for a sentence
reduction. But since they can’t keep everything clean
themselves, two or three people help out. On Sunday they get paid for it. We demand 35 (US) cents or cigarettes. We don’t keep the money but pass it on to
the men who do the cleaning.” Money is prohibited in the prison. Payment is made in cigarettes or telephone
PIN numbers. They’re worth a lot here, as they enable
contact to the outside world. In order to use the phone, inmates have to
have a PIN number which gives them credit. The telephone cards themselves are provided
by family or friends on the outside. The more rules there are, the more people
break them. Nicolas sees himself as an intermediary between
prisoners, but also between inmates and guards. “I have to stop the brawls that break out
here. If brawls take place, I lose my status. I am the people. I am the one in charge.” Most of the inmates accept Nicolas. He must fight regularly to prove that he belongs
at the top of his cellblock. The guards tolerate Nicolas as boss as long
as he works in their interests. If he doesn’t, his will be the first head
to roll. The inmates know that too. There’s always one person there in case
things get chaotic. But this person must have character, be strong. Otherwise many people will try to bring him
down and take his place. Like a president is in charge of his government,
there also has to be someone here who’s in charge of the yard.” Officially, the guards are in charge of the
yard. But there’s a big problem: the guards can
be bribed, or they try to avoid conflicts with the inmates. The guards know there are drugs here and that
many inmates use them. From morning to night the inmates smoke marijuana,
take cocaine, or get high on bazuco, a cheap by-product of cocaine production. It all goes on right under the guards’ noses. But they put up with it, since they can’t
stop it completely anyway. “There are many ways for forbidden substances
to find their way into the prison. They can be brought in by visitors on visiting
day. Or they can be thrown into the pavilions from
outside. There are many ways to get contraband inside.” Throwing things over the prison walls is one
of the most popular and effective ways of smuggling contraband into the jail. Quick as lightning, one of the inmates grabs
the package that’s been thrown in. A lot of thought goes into the concealment
of smuggled goods. Drugs, weapons, and cell phones are wrapped
up in many small pieces of paper. Everything is quickly distributed and hidden
– until the guards have nothing left to find except the letters that are also in the
packages. And the prisoners explain them in their own
way: “They were letters. A family member decides to write, and sends
them.” “One example: I was arrested with an accomplice. He’s in the other yard, so he sends me a
letter to tell me we have a hearing on a certain day. The letters are about that kind of thing.” The penitentiary’s location makes it an
easy target for this kind of smuggling. The cellblocks are surrounded on one or two
sides by public streets, and the yards have no roofs. Not all the packages make it to the yards. They land on the roofs and then on this table. The lieutenant is taking pictures of the contents
of fifteen packages that were all thrown in one week – but that didn’t hit their target. “There are a couple greenish substances
here. Looks like marijuana. And this stuff here comes wrapped in individual
portions. It’s another way to smuggle drugs: swallowing
them or hiding them in body cavities. That’s why the guards often can’t find
drugs, but the dogs can.” Only a fraction of the packages remains on
the roof. Most make their way into the yard, but that
doesn’t always mean trouble. “According to Colombian law, possessing,
selling, and transporting drugs is illegal. If we find someone with more than 20 grams,
that is more than 20 grams of marijuana or one gram of bazuco – if we find someone
with more than this dose, then we prosecute him.” Even in prison, this law applies. Prosecution means a longer prison sentence. The mills of justice grind very slowly in
Colombia. First, the prosecutor stipulates a sentence
that the prisoner is allowed to challenge. But until that happens, years often pass. Thus, although most of the prisoners have
not yet been sentenced, they sit behind bars for years and wait. The only way to reduce one’s sentence is
to work in the workshops. The sentence is reduced by the amount of time
the prisoners work. The problem: there are too few work stations
for too many inmates. Thus some hope to be transferred to other
prisons where there are more work stations. But that doesn’t usually happen until they’re
sentenced. Back to Diego. The new inmates’ are still being processed. They’ve been here for four hours. Now it’s time for a haircut. There are clear guidelines for the barber:
the clipper must be set to two millimeters. The inmates have to get their hair cut regularly,
or they do it themselves – with smuggled razor blades. For once, an appropriate use of contraband. Then it’s time to record the prisoners’
personal information. Previous convictions, family, scars, tattoos
– everything is taken down. “I have a scar on my arm.” “A burn?” “No. It happened when I got a tattoo.” “Where?… Right arm”
“Right!” “Okay…” “What’s it say?” “My mom’s name!” “Rotate your arm!” The last step in the information gathering
process: mug shots. For over 80 percent of the inmates, this is
a familiar routine. It’s not their first time in prison, and
it probably won’t be their last. In the cellblock for sentenced inmates, it’s
all about surviving and somehow getting through the day. Nicolas takes the opportunity to rap out his
frustration. Rapping. Nicolas raps about life in prison, weapons,
and violence. But back in the corner, they don’t only
rap about violence. Practice fights take place there – with
no weapons and no injuries. The inmates show off their fighting skills. But often, things get out of hand. “If you have to fight, then you have to
– sometimes even with a knife. The camera doesn’t reach back here, so this
is where we do it.” Nicolas sustained several injuries in his
last fight. Since then, his pinky has been stiff. There’s no shortage of reasons to fight
here. “The boy doesn’t like black people. Then he started screaming in the yard, ‘I
don’t like blacks! Who should I fight?’ I came into the yard and tried to stay calm
and not worry about it. But the boy wouldn’t leave me alone, so
we fought.” Most altercations arise because of stealing,
unpaid debts, drugs, or simply out of boredom. And no fight ends without injuries. Almost everyone here has a weapon – knives,
scissors, needles. There’s even a man in Nicolas’s gang who
is responsible for replenishing the supply of weapons. Wrapped up and camouflaged, the knives are
barely noticeable. Many of the inmates don’t just turn weapons
on others, but also on themselves. Nicolas is one of them. “I’m bipolar, so I have radical mood swings. Seeing blood helps me keep myself under control. But I don’t do anything to anyone else,
just to myself. I used to go to a psychiatrist every month. And he gave me pills. But I don’t have any more. I took them all.” New prisoners are examined by a psychologist
as part of their processing, but many disorders and problems only develop during their stay
in prison. Cutting oneself is a standard method of numbing
the pain and the desperation. The prisoners receive no proper psychological
treatment. Again and again, there are inmates who try
to put an end to their time in prison – by putting an end to their own lives. Like this young prisoner. He’s already tried to jump from the highest
floor into the yard three times. His fellow inmates managed to stop him. Today is his latest suicide attempt: he tried
to hang himself with a T-shirt. The handcuffs are meant to protect him from
himself. “The situation with this guy is difficult. He’s overwhelmed. He has strong suicidal tendencies. We have to pay close attention to him until
he goes to the hospital. If we don’t, I know he’ll try to kill
himself again.” Such situations set off the guards’ alarm
bells. Some of the inmates use this as an excuse
to get more attention and special treatment. For this reason, strict examinations are carried
out first. There is no room for pity here! “He’s been here for one month. It’s his first time. In general, the first time is difficult. They’re often depressed, as they’re separated
from their families.” The young inmate lost his girlfriend – she
committed suicide. He wanted to join her. Many of the inmates must struggle with such
strokes of fate. The families also suffer from the separation. Jonn Fernando’s wife, for example. For three years, she’s had to raise their
child all by herself. After the medical examination in the hospital,
the prisoners return to their cellblocks. And in this cellblock, Jonn Fernando is the
boss. He oversees the routines, the dealing with
drugs and weapons. He is supported by a twelve-man crew. Here, he has the same role as Nicolas does
in his yard. And the two men have known each other for
a long time. „[Nicolas’s last name] was here, too. He was my boy, too. He worked for me, too. But he fought, he fought with somebody else,
somebody that is here. And he stab him really bad. The other kid, he is a little kid, but the
little kid is so bad. You know, he likes to stab people just for
nothing, you know. So, that’s why they changed him. And he now is the boss over there, you see
how it’s things. Here, he had to listen to me. Over there, probably when I get there I have
to listen to him who knows or fight with him who knows. But he’s still my friend, he’s a bad guy. He cuts himself, he’s crazy!” And this is the guy Nicolas fought with. The guy who doesn’t like quote-unquote “blacks.” Many inmates wear their scars proudly – they
show that they don’t run away from fights. Things aren’t going so well for Nicolas
in his cellblock at the moment. His dealings, the fact that he demands money
and cigarettes from others, have been discovered. He and a member of his gang are even supposed
to have threatened another inmate with a knife. And not for the first time! The prison has to investigate accusations
like this. “I don’t like your innocent attitude. You’ve got to clear this up with the boy. I don’t want you to harm him again. If you do, you’ll get solitary confinement. We’ve respected you. We respect your rights. But you don’t respect the others. You don’t give a shit! This changes now! If you do it again – and I don’t care
if you cut each other’s ears off – you’ll never get out of solitary!” Solitary confinement also means an extension
of the sentence, or that the current sentence cannot be reduced. Constant misbehavior leads to power struggles
between the guards and the inmates, and the inmates always get the short end of the stick. “There’s a little problem, so we’ve
got to behave .” The “little problem” has widespread effects. The head of discipline and the lieutenant
make an announcement to all the prisoners. Today they’re just talking. But acts of disobedience are often quickly
met with the baton. “That’s another issue. But security is paramount, and that’s why
we’re here today.” “Gentlemen! First: you’ve all been sentenced and will
be here for a long time. You should know that no one pays money for
anything. Not to the guards, not to the administration,
not to the inmates. I’ll say this today nicely, for the first
and the last time. No one may cheat or beat on others. NO ONE.” Even if some of the inmates feel threatened
by Nicolas and his gang – everyone is against the guards and the lieutenants! Instead of simply giving in and behaving peacefully,
now they really start to get restless. “It’s a touchy issue. We have to check it out. It’s the third time they’ve said it.” In such heated situations, things can also
get dangerous for the guards and the prison employees. Many of the inmates are not shy about resorting
to violence, even with them. Nicolas wants confront the people who ratted
on him. “Everyone!” The first commandment – never tell on another
inmate – has been broken. And there’s a lot at stake for Nicolas. “I’ve called you here to talk about something. Several people have complained that we’re
extorting you. If you feel extorted because you have to pay
35 cents or a cigarette, then we’ll stop cleaning. We won’t do anything anymore, and we’ll
let the yard stay dirty.” “Why? Someone complained to the people at the top
that we demand money or cigarettes. It’s not for us. It’s for the cleaners. But if you don’t want to pay, then don’t. But then we won’t clean either.” In the jail, 35 cents or cigarettes are worth
a lot. Sometimes guards make deals with inmates in
order to get information. Then it’s easy to betray a fellow inmate. “I don’t know who it was, but they’re
attacking me! For the money you pay for cleaning.” Just like a president must take the blame
for his government, Nicolas must take the blame for his yard. “If I ask for money again, they’ll put
me on trial. And they don’t clean for free.” “There are official cleaners, and people
Nicolas chooses to clean. Then only the official cleaners will work.” The inmates fear solitary confinement. Not only because of the extra prison time,
but also because of the cell itself. The solitary confinement cells are like a
prison within a prison. The light goes on here at 5 a.m. and goes
off at 5 p.m. Daylight only shines through the small grate at the ceiling. Mattresses and blankets are removed from the
cells during the day. Only the concrete slabs remains. Twice a day, the inmates are allowed to take
a walk accompanied by a guard – in an isolated yard. The isolation itself is the worst punishment. “You get bored in the cell. You despair. You just want to beat your head against the
wall, you’re so desperate.” The solitary confinement cells also act as
a kind of quarantine station for inmates with illnesses or wounds that have to heal. But some illnesses get worse here. “For example, this door fell off when a
prisoner lit himself on fire in this cell. The prisoner lost control of himself. He’s mentally ill and thought a devil commanded
him to set fire to his cell.” The inmates are alone with themselves and
their thoughts! That’s the worst thing for them! New inmates have come to Jonn Fernando’s
cellblock today. It took twelve hours to process them. Diego is now officially a prisoner in the
penitentiary. Although he recognizes faces from his last
jail, he still has to learn how the inmates and the guards here tick. “Things are different here. It’s not like the other jail.” After more than twelve hours, the newbies
finally get something to eat: bread, a banana, and avena, a Colombian oat beverage. But they don’t have much time. Soon the prisoners’ official representative
will give them an introduction. This man is the guards’ mouthpiece to the
inmates. It’s his job to explain the jail’s rules
to the new arrivals. “This is a community. We don’t want any brawling, either with
older or younger inmates. This is a place for coming together. Second: there is no stealing here, although
there are thieves. We call them brooms. If you’re a broom, you won’t do well here.” Translation: stealing will get you beat up. Diego must now internalize these rules in
order to avoid having problems. Most prisoners obey the rules in the beginning,
but the longer they’re here, the more daring they get. Like Nicolas! The upheaval has now calmed down somewhat
and will soon subside entirely. Before the cell doors close for the evening,
some of the inmates get medication. The doctor only distributes pills to inmates
with a prescription and an official medical diagnosis. Many prisoners try to get medication this
way, so a watchful eye is necessary. The prisoners are given insulin syringes,
medication for flu symptoms, and antipsychotics. They’re not prescribed for the individual
needs of mentally ill patients, however. They’re just tranquilizers. Every few months a psychologist conducts examinations,
but usually nothing changes. Too many inmates with different problems means
excessive costs for the local government. Like every evening, the prisoners must now
line up to be counted. This is how the guards make sure everyone
is present, but it also lets them show the inmates that they’re just numbers to them. The prisoners’ day ends at 5 p.m. They have ten minutes to get ready. For Diego, it’s a new experience. In the other prison, the inmates decided when
they went to bed. But one thing will not change for Diego here. “It’s better to be a loner in prison. A bad friend only causes problems. And I don’t want any problems. So distance is good. That’s how you stay away from problems. This prison is ultimately a community. You respect others so that they’ll respect
you.” “We just want to stay alive and respect
each other.” But everyone has their own definition of “respect”
in prison. The cell doors stay closed for twelve hours. For grown men who are used to doing whatever
they want outside of prison, this is hard to take. But that’s exactly the point: it’s a disciplinary
measure! “The day is over now. I’m exhausted. I hope I sleep well.” Another day gone – that’s what everyone
here thinks! One day of many still to come. Every day, altercations between inmates and
guards. Every day, the hope of early release. Every day, worrying about families waiting
on the outside. Every day, struggles with oneself and the
fear of ending up back here – behind bars! Jonn Fernando still has two years on his sentence,
and he is awaiting another trial. His family must continue to make due without
him. „Vor einem Monat hat mir meine Frau gesagt,
dass sie schwanger ist. Da war ich wirklich glücklich. Ich will noch ein Kind. Ich will ein kleines Mädchen. Gott hat mir die Möglichkeit gegeben und
das ist schön. Das ist mein ganzes Glück! Ich erledige das hier noch, ich will so schnell
wie möglich raus und nie wieder zurück, hoffentlich! Das ist alles, was ich sagen kann.“ Nicolas continues to struggle with his bipolar
disorder. He hopes to get out in three months, to see
his mother and then to finally take another path. “A friend on the outside and I want to do
a song together.” Diego will spend four more years behind bars. His biggest wish: to be able to see his wife
and grandmother again after one year. They all have one goal in common: to turn
their backs on the hardships of prison life, and to never come back here again. A goal that very few will achieve.