Picture Show: Inside a Colombian Prison

As the home of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, the city of Medellín, Colombia, used to be one of the most violent places in...

As the home of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, the city of Medellín, Colombia, used to be one of the most violent places in the world. Today, the cells and grounds of its Bellavista prison are largely populated with people who grew up in and around the city. It's an intimidating place, to say the least, yet as is evident in the images of Vance Jacobs's photographic series "Colombian Prison: A View from the Inside," even within the confines of prison walls can the beauty of the human spirit be observed. On the invitation of the Centro Colombo Americano, an English language school for Colombians in Medellín, Jacobs ventured to the Bellavista prison with an inspired assignment: to teach documentary photography to eight inmates in one week.

"One of the things that gets the inmates' attention is responsibility, that there is a stake in what they do. In this case, their ability to work together as a team, and to pull this together in a very short amount of time would determine whether other similar projects were done not only at this prison but at other prisons in Colombia," says Jacobs. "Once they bought into the idea that there was a lot at stake, they really applied themselves."

After that week-long effort, the project was exhibited not only at the prison, but also at the Centro Colombo Americano, for the families of inmates. What follows is a selection from those photographs, all of which were taken by inmates (who must remain anonymous) except for those taken by Jacobs (where noted).

Inmates take turns using and assortment of exercise equipment that was purchased for them by Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario in the 1990s. Photo by Vance Jacobs.

Soccer is by far the most popular sport in South America, and Bellavista has no less than four soccer fields, ranging from concrete to worn down grass.

The prison consists of seven main housing units (known as patios) for inmates. Each patio has three floors and four hallways, and each is controlled by a floor coordinator, an elected position held by an inmate. In the past, these floor coordinators were called “caciques” and the positions were fought for in bloody turf wars inside the prison. It wasn’t until one of the most powerful of these caciques, Harold Sanchez, convinced the other caciques in the late 1990s that the violence must stop, that these positions began to be decided peacefully. Sanchez created a series of round-table discussions about peace, that in recent years have been recognized internationally for their results.

Until recently, the maximum sentence in Colombia was 40 years. Now 60 years is longest any inmate can serve.

The prison’s food (known as “bongo” by the inmates) usually includes rice, soup, potatoes, and processed meat. Many prisoners also store and ration the food their families give them on visiting day and then mix this food with the bongo. Photo by Vance Jacobs.

All inmates receive three meals a day.

The hardest working inmates in the prison are a group of men who volunteer to work in the kitchen. They live in cells within the main kitchen facility and work more than eight hours per day, which greatly reduces their sentences and provides them with spending money.

For their protection and in order to provide them with necessary services, disabled prisoners live in their own patio.

Many inmates who can afford it will hire other inmates to clean their rooms, cook, and do laundry for them.

The average sentence at Bellavista is 30 years, so it's no surprise that prisoners make homes out of their cells. Photo by Vance Jacobs.

Personal effects in a prisoner’s cell speak volumes about their life on the outside world. Every Sunday, approximately 3,500 wives and girlfriends line up to have conjugal visits with inmates, which helps to keep the bond between life on the inside and life on the outside strong for the inmates. During the holidays, the number can swell to 6,000 visitors at Bellavista.

Small businesses exist among inmates to provide everything from food to haircuts. Prisoners can buy personal items from a little store if their family puts money into their account: bread, milk, candy, canned food, newspapers and ice cream among other things.

Inmates with money live very different lives than those without. Inmates at Bellavista who own or rent a cell also get their own lock and set of keys.

A group of young “pirates” (homeless inmates) sleep after lunch.

Built in 1976, the prison was intended to hold 1,500 inmates but its population grew rapidly, which has led to inmates subdividing their cells into smaller and smaller units. Many inmates will buy or rent attic-like spaces in other prisoners’ cells, with no more than 3 feet of clearance between the boards that act as a floor and the ceiling.

Because of overpopulation, there is no guarantee of receiving a cell. All cells are available for purchase or rent by a long-standing network of buyers and sellers within the prison. If you can’t afford a cell then you are known as a “pirate."

The inmates at Bellavista receive special privileges on La Virgen de Las Mercedes Day which celebrates the life of the Patron Saint of Inmates. The festivities include cultural events and a communal barbecue.

For decades Bellavista has been one of the most violent prisons in the world—a maximum-security home to guerrillas, paramilitary, assassins, drug dealers, petty criminals, and corrupt public officials alike.

via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

Former Secretary of State, first lady, and winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, sat own for an epic, two-and-a--half hour interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show Wednesday.

She was there to promote "The Book of Gutsy Women," a book about heroic women co-written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

In the far-reaching conversation, Clinton and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" and, without a doubt, the best interviewer in America discussed everything from Donald Trump's inauguration to her sexuality.

Keep Reading Show less

Offering parental leave for new fathers could help close the gender gap, removing the unfair "motherhood penalty" women receive for taking time off after giving birth. However, a new study finds that parental leave also has a pay gap. Men are less likely to take time off, however, when they do, they're more likely to get paid for it.

A survey of 2,966 men and women conducted by New America found that men are more likely to receive paid parental leave. Over half (52%) of fathers had fully paid parental leave, and 14% of fathers had partially paid parental leave. In comparison, 33% of mothers had fully paid parental leave and 19% had partially paid parental leave.

Keep Reading Show less

Bans on plastic bags and straws can only go so far. Using disposable products, like grabbing a plastic fork when you're on the go, can be incredibly convenient. But these items also contribute to our growing plastic problem.

Fortunately, you can cut down on the amount of waste you produce by cutting down on disposable products. And even more fortunately, there are sustainable (and cute) replacements that won't damage the environment.

Coconut bowls


Who says sustainable can't also be stylish? These cute coconut bowls were handmade using reclaimed coconuts, making each piece one of a kind. Not only are they organic and biodegradable, but they're also durable, in case your dinner parties tend to get out of hand. The matching ebony wood spoons were polished with the same coconut oil as the bowls.

Cocostation Set of 2 Vietnamese Coconut Bowls and Spoons, $14.99; at Amazon

Solar powered phone charger


Why spend time looking around for an outlet when you can just harness the power of the sun? This solar powered phone charger will make sure your phone never dies as long as you can bask in the sun's rays. As an added bonus, this charger was made using eco-friendly silicone rubber. It's win-win all around.

Dizaul Solar Charger, 5000mAh Portable Solar Power Bank, $19.95; at Amazon, $19.95; at Amazon

Herb garden kit

Planter Pro

Put some green in your life with this herb planter. The kit comes with everything you need to get a garden growing, including a moisture meter that helps you determine if your herbs are getting the right amount of food to flourish. All the seeds included are certified to be non-GMO and non-hybrids, meaning you can have fresh, organic herbs right at your fingertips.

Planter Pro's Herb Garden Cedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazonedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazon

Reusable Keurig cups

K & J

Keurig cups are convenient, but they also create a ton of plastic waste. These Keurig-compatible plastic cups are an easy way to cut down on the amount of trash you create without cutting down on your caffeine. Additionally, you won't have to keep on buying K Cups, which means you'll be saving money and the environment.

K&J Reusable Filter Cups, $8.95 for a set of 4,; at Amazon

Low-flow shower head


Low-flow water fixtures can cut down your water consumption, which saves you money while also saving one of the Earth's resources. This shower head was designed with a lighter flow in mind, which means you'll be able to cut down on water usage without feeling like you're cutting down on your shower.

Speakman Low Flow Shower Head, $14.58; at Amazon

Bamboo safety razor


Instead of throwing away a disposable razor every time you shave, invest in an eco-friendly, reusable one. This unisex shaver isn't just sustainable, it's also sharp-looking, which means it would make a great gift for the holidays.

Zomchi Safety Razor, $16.99; at Amazon

The Planet