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Colombia's Jailbirds To Get 'Vacations'

Critics see hand of Cali drug lords

Just in time for the holiday season, Colombia's Congress is giving prisoners a Christmas present: weekend get-out-of-jail-free passes.

Congress passed a bill last week that will allow inmates, including the jailed leaders of the Cali drug cartel, to take vacations from jail - up to two months per year. President Ernesto Samper is expected to sign the bill into law in coming weeks.

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"In the last two years, this Congress has raised penalties for this type of crime. A law like this will practically nullify the effects of those laws which were so hard to push through," says Herman Vargas Lleras, a senator who voted against the "Alternative Penalty" bill.

The United States expressed concern that serious criminals would be able to take unsupervised holiday breaks from prison, but mostly, the State Department was relieved that the result wasn't worse. The bill in its original form would have allowed early-release to the drug bosses, whose sentences are already short by US standards. Public outcry pushed Congress to modify the bill and exclude drug-traffickers from early release.

The government heralded the law - which will allow early release for some 13,000 Colombian prisoners - as a measure to alleviate the country's prison overcrowding. Many critics saw it as camouflage for a favor to drug criminals, who have a lot of influence in Congress.

Prisoners' rights advocates are pleased the issue is being addressed for whatever reason. "On the one hand ... this law is a way to disguise impunity, and get lots of people out. But at the bottom of it there is a very grave problem - the density of the people in the prisons," says Alfredo Molano, a Bogot sociologist.

Riots in the overflowing prisons are commonplace in Colombia, where some penitentiaries are at 300-percent occupancy. "This means that you can see people sleeping in the bathrooms, the hallways, sleeping on the tables, where people are going to eat the next day. The conditions are terrible," says Jaime Prieto, an activist who has worked on prison issues for 20 years.

Furthermore, about 40 percent of the prison population is still awaiting trial, says Mr. Prieto. Prisoners can spend up to three years in prison before they are finally found guilty or not. On a recent trip to Colombia, a delegation from the Organization of American States called the conditions "cruel, inhumane, and degrading."

To be eligible for early release, inmates must have completed 60 percent of their terms, have shown good behavior, and have no additional charges pending. Prisoners convicted of drug trafficking, sex crimes, illicit enrichment, or terrorism are not eligible for early release. However, after serving 80 percent of their terms, all prisoners are eligible for "weekend passes," with which they can leave the jail, unsupervised, for up to 15 days at a time.

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Cali drug bosses Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, who donated $6 million to Mr. Samper's presidential campaign, are serving their sentences in very comfortable cells where they have access to many luxuries.

"It's absurd to use the situation in the prisons to push a decision regarding people who aren't serving in those prisons," says Senator Vargas Lleras.

"Despite the grave human rights problems the inmates in Colombian prisons face, this project doesn't attack any of the real causes of the situation ... [such as] the congestion and sluggishness of the administration of justice," says Sen. Claudia Blum, who also opposed the bill.

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