TAKING PICTURES IN A PRISON is a very sad experience. It is a cold place, with walls and doors everywhere.
When I went into the first courtyard at La Distrital Prison in Bogotá, the prisoners jumped on me, asking if they could see some photos from the outside. The only freedom they got that day were the pictures I happened to have of my home garden. Days before, I had been testing a 50mm lens and forgot to delete the shots. I was happy I didn’t. Some of the inmates asked me to take pictures of them and bring them back, so I did.
The experience brought to mind a question a professor once asked when I was studying criminal law: What would happen if the prisons were closed and all the prisoners went free? His answer: “Nothing, nothing would happen.” After visiting La Distrital, I have to agree. According to one prisoner I spoke with, “it is not the prison that makes you better. In fact, you can become a worse person here. You are the only one who can decide to become a better person or not.”
More than 11,000 people live under inhuman conditions in the penitentiary system in Bogotá. Among the city’s four prisons (La Modelo, El Buen Pastor, La Distrital, La Picota), La Distrital has become an example of how a prison should be run. It provides medical and dental services. Prisoners prepare meals with the help of nutritionists and a chef. They have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and juice breaks in the afternoons. However, what is most noteworthy are the activities and workshops that encourage self-esteem and social integration — there’s a library, bakery, and textile workshop, among other opportunities. “Father’s Day is even celebrated here!” said one inmate.
The prison schedule runs from 5:00 to lights out at 21:00. There are six pavilions (Básico, Esperanza, Transición, Opción, Libertad, Autonomía), and the building structure adheres to the American model: a courtyard and two floors of cells surrounding it that provide a general view of inmate movements. Those incarcerated at La Distrital have committed minor offenses, such as theft and failure to pay alimony.