Cocaine Cassie’s jail mates riot over virus threat
Cassie Sainsbury's Bogota jail descended into riots as terrified prisoners said not enough was being done to protect them from COVID-19.
Inmates at Colombia's biggest female jail were beaten by guards after weeks of deteriorating conditions, including fewer meals and a virus ban on visitors that has starved inmates of outside food and sanitary supplies.
Dramatic video obtained by News Corp Australia from inside the El Buen Pastor jail shows the scene at Sainsbury's cell block on Saturday night. Inmates scream "freedom" while banging on the cell bars.
Sainsbury is at the tail-end of a three year minimum term for trying to smuggle almost 5kg of cocaine from Colombia in April, 2017.
The former South Australian had hoped for early release this year, but even if she does manage to get out of jail, she won't be able to leave the country, with airports to close to both national and international passengers starting Monday, local time.
Protests rocked jails across Colombia on Saturday night with 23 inmates killed at one notorious federal prison, La Modelo. Another 82 were injured in an attempted jailbreak.
An inmate at El Buen Pastor said the riots were lasted for three hours.
"The protest broke out around 9pm and women starting burning mattresses and blankets and the whole place filled with smoke," said the inmate. She did not wish to be named because she was communicating on a contraband mobile phone.
"The guards fired buckshot and tear gases and entered the cell blocks and beat some women.
"Two women broke the cell bars to escape and they raided the dispensary … this went on til after midnight."
another inmate said from inside the jail: "It's bad and every day is worse.
"They won't let us go to the dispensary. They stop us going anywhere. And to make sure we don't say anything they tear gas us.
"There's always a tension as there's no food and the tiny bit they do give us is so horrible its like we're caged dogs," she went on to say. "It's crazy."
On the fear around the virus inside, the prisoner said: "I couldn't tell you much about the virus because we could all be infected but how would we know?
"The virus could be here but we don't know because they don't test us or isolate us when we have a fever or a cough, we stay stuck in the cells.
"Everyone always forgets about people deprived of liberty."
Inpec, the Colombian government's prison agency, has not confirmed any deaths or casualties from the protests in El Buen Pastor, and did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.
The jail had settled down on Sunday, local time, although there were concerns of more trouble on Sunday night.
"Calm makes me think protests could happen again tonight," the inmate said.
The woman, who claims to be friends with Sainsbury, said she last saw her on Saturday afternoon, and that she was "well but I don't know about right now".
While they are on the same wing, or patio, they are locked in different cells with seven other women.
Sainsbury is currently nursing a swollen face after having her wisdom teeth pulled out, the inmate said.
"She doesn't go to the canteen, but that's understandable because the food is so bad," she said.
Colombia has 231 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with two deaths - the first in the Andean nation - confirmed in the last 24 hours. Bogota is the current epicentre of the outbreak in Colombia, with 88 confirmed cases. Officials have not reported any cases yet in prisons.
On Sunday morning, a local prison watchdog - the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners - reported that inmates were confined to their cells following the unrest, with a "shameful" meal served for breakfast.
"The guards come and go from the prison and they don't even teach us what such a thing as bacteria is," Sainsbury's friend told News Corp Australia.
On March 17, the same watchdog put out a statement saying that "inmates denounce that guards are restricting the entry of toiletries such as antibacterial gel for a few days, and that the supply of food to the cell blocks has worsened."
"Inpec [the government prison agency] has never had the capacity to respond to the basic sanitary needs that we have," one inmate at El Buen Pastor told El Espectador, a local newspaper, adding that altercations with officials left 15 inmates injured.
"They are telling us that washing our hands with soap is key but we don't have any soap but they only way to get it is if people outside send it in."
The unnamed inmate went on to say that some are using packets of disinfectant instead. Colombian officials banned visitors to prisons earlier this month, cutting off a route for contraband sanitary goods.
Another inmate in El Buen Pastor interviewed by El Espectador painted a similarly bleak picture. "There's lost of weak and depressed people here," the inmate said. "We accept that families can't visit but they don't give us food. We have cried out of hunger."
Sainsbury has been approached for comment.
Her former lawyer, Orlando Herran, said "the situation is very serious, very complicated".
''About 15 days ago they suspended all visits to the jail from family members but also from lawyers. At this moment there is no communication, they aren't even allowing phone calls. Cassie won't be able to speak to her family," Mr Herran said.
"There have been no confirmed cases in any of the jails. By nature, the prisoners are already isolated by being in jail. They don't need to self-isolate because they are locked up. But if the virus makes its way into the jail, it would spread like quickfire because of the overcrowding. That many people in close proximity - it would be disastrous for the prisoners.
''And because the prisoners are so aware of the conditions in which they live - the overcrowding, the lack of health and safety - they are rioting. They are rioting because they are scared.
''They are also rioting because they can't have visitors, they can't have contact with their families. And watching the news and the situation develop and worsen, they obviously want contact with their families. Add to that, that they don't know when they will next see their families, and people get restless, they want to leave, they riot.''
Originally published as Cocaine Cassie's jail mates riot over virus threat