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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.

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