Inmates participate in an event at the El Buen Pastor Women's Prison, on September 15, 2023, in Bogotá (Colombia). EFE/ Carlos Ortega

Colombia opens a window to freedom for imprisoned women

Bogotá, Sept 17 (EFE). – Paola Sarmiento and Jasbleidy Pulido are united by the desire to hug their children again and leave behind a past of “many mistakes” that ended in El Buen Pastor, a cold Bogotá prison holding 1,869 accused and convicted women.

Both are serving sentences for drug trafficking, having been involved in criminal organizations dedicated to recruiting people to transport drugs, store them in their homes, act as lookouts, or sell small amounts of marijuana or cocaine.

“I ended up here because I made bad choices, I didn’t listen to my parents’, and that’s why I left home at 13 in search of new horizons and more freedom,” says Paola, who ended up selling small doses of marijuana.

An inmate in El Buen Pastor Women’s prison, on September 15, 2023, in Bogotá (Colombia). EFE/ Carlos Ortega

She hopes that in less than six months she will be able to take advantage of a new law that will allow nearly 5,000 female heads of household to replace their sentences with community service, according to the Ministry of Justice.

“It would be a blessing if this could happen, I trust it will,” says Paola, as she paints small figures of Colombia’s indigenous culture and landscapes on a strip of leather that she turns into napkin holders, purses and other handicrafts sold in stores and airports around the country.

Paola Sarmiento works painting crafts in the El Buen Pastor Women’s prison, on September 15, 2023, in Bogotá (Colombia). EFE/ Carlos Ortega


More than 5,000 female heads of household sentenced to eight years or less in prison in Colombia will begin to be released in exchange for social or community service as an alternative to serving their sentences.

This policy is part of the measures taken by the Colombian Ministry of Justice to humanize the prison system.

Jasbleidy Pulido, cries when she talks about her case. She recalls that she entered the dark tunnel of drugs to solve a bad streak when she “couldn’t get a job in anything, not as a car washer, not as a maid, not in warehouses, not in anything,” she told EFE.

She was going to be thrown out on the street if she was unable to pay her rent, when a man appeared and offered to “solve” her problem.

“He told me he could help me. I told him I could work on anything,” but he offered me to “take a load” – a euphemism for transporting cocaine to another country. At first I said no because I have a daughter,” Jasbleidy says.

As the days passed and her economic situation worsened, she finally accepted. However, “the adventure didn’t last long, because my nervousness condemned me at the airport,” she remembers.

Now 45 and serving a nine-year sentence for drug trafficking, Jasbleidy hopes the new decree will help her return to freedom and support her mother, an 84-year-old woman who is still waiting for her.

Jasbleidy Pulido speaks during an interview with EFE at the El Buen Pastor Women’s Prison, on September 15, 2023, in Bogotá (Colombia). EFE/ Carlos Ortega


According to the Ministry of Justice, there are over 17,000 women in prison in Colombia. About 7,800 have been sentenced, and the rest are waiting for their cases to progress in a slow and overburdened judicial system.

The new law focuses on “rehabilitation” and “human rights,” so convicts can receive reduced sentences for crimes such as theft, qualified theft, drug trafficking, trafficking, producing or transporting drugs, and illegal destination of property, among others.

Both Sarmiento and Pulido agree that these benefits will help a lot of people who are still waiting for a green light from the judges.

Inmates listen to Colombia’s Deputy Minister of Criminal Policy and Restorative Justice, Camilo Eduardo Umaña (l-below), during an event at the El Buen Pastor Women’s Prison, on September 15, 2023, in Bogotá, Colombia. EFE/ Carlos Ortega

“I believe that in six months or less I will be free and I will devote myself to my three children,” says Sarmiento, who finished high school in prison and “takes advantage of every course they offer”.

Both women agree that this is a “unique” opportunity to “start over.

They will be able to do social work, for which the government already has 2,500 places thanks to agreements with various state agencies, companies and NGOs.

“They leave knowing that they cannot reoffend, they already have a life plan, which means that they leave knowing where they are going for sentence substitution,” explains the Deputy Minister of Criminal Policy and Restorative Justice, Camilo Umaña, in charge of implementing the new policy.

Five hours of work will allow them to reduce one week of their sentence, they can do social work a maximum of 20 hours a week. The rest of the time, they can work or do whatever they want.

According to Jasbleidy Pulido, in addition to asking for her mother’s forgiveness, she will try to create a foundation to help prisoners, many of whom “are detained because they are innocent and do not know how to defend themselves.”

“The first thing I will do when I return to freedom will be to embrace my mother, my daughter and my family. I will go out and hug them,” she says.

In the meantime, she looks around the prison buildings, where up to six people are crammed into double cells and clothes are hung out to dry in the corridors, flapping in the wind, reminding the inmates of the privileges of freedom. EFE