IT IS Colombia’s most notorious women’s prison, a filthy sprawling institution which houses thousands of women, children and babies.
El Buen Pastor, which means “The Good Shepherd” in English, is packed with women who have been held without trial — many of them the wives of rebels and their young children — and has a questionable human rights record.
The jail’s newest inmate is 22-year-old Australian accused drug mule Cassandra Sainsbury, who was allegedly caught with 5.8kg of cocaine in her suitcase at El Dorado International Airport last month.
Police swooped on the personal trainer, from Moana in South Australia, just minutes before she was due to catch a flight home.
Ms Sainsbury, who is supposed to be getting married next February, has been languishing at El Buen Pastor since her April 11 arrest as she awaits trial on drug trafficking charges.
Her mother Lisa Evans says she is “scared to death” at the thought of her daughter living inside the jail.
“As her mother, I am devastated that my little girl is in this place,” she wrote on a fundraising page established to help cover Ms Sainsbury’s legal expenses. “Our family just wants her home safe.”
According to a report by human right watchdog Justice for Colombia, one of the most serious problems at El Buen Pastor is overcrowding. In 2012, there were an estimated 2,200 women, children and babies packed into a cell blocks with a collective maximum capacity of just 1, 250 people.
That’s not quite as bad as the situation made out by Ms Sainsbury’s sister Khala, who claimed on her page titled “Help me save my sister, and bring her home” that the prison was “overpopulated by about 50,000 people”.
A New York woman who spent several years in El Buen Pastor after agreeing to become a drug mule to pay off debts, told The LA Times that she spent most of her days reflecting on her life in the sun drenched prison yard.
“Overall the jail here isn’t that bad, Vivian Carrasquillo told the paper in a rare 2007 interview from inside the jail.
“We wear our own clothes and open and close our own doors. It’s the littlest things you think about in here, like opening a refrigerator … and speaking English.
Carrasquillo said the average cell was three metres by three metres with prisoners allowed to paint the walls and tape photographs next to their beds.
The prison is famed for its annual beauty pageant and authorities released photographs from the event each year with much fanfare. However, insiders say the pageant is less of a morale booster than an exercise in propaganda.
In January this year, authorities opened two breastfeeding rooms inside the jail to cater for both prisoners and guards.
“The Breastfeeding Family-Friendly Rooms are spaces equipped with all the specifications of law to conserve the mother’s milk and to transport it safely to the nursery accommodating the inmates’ children or, in the case of the guards, to their homes,” the Colombian Ministry of Health said in a statement.
Ms Sainsbury’s family claims she was set up while on a working holding in the South American country, which is internationally notorious for cocaine production.
Almost 6kg of the drug was allegedly found packed inside 15 headphones she claimed to have bought on the cheap from a man who had been acting as her translator.
Ms Sainsbury told Colombian police she packed the headphones — which had all been meticulously wrapped in plastic — into her suitcase without checking them and had no knowledge of the hidden contraband.
“I can’t believe this has happened to an innocent young woman,” her grandmother Barbara Johns said.
“Anyone who knows Cassie, knows she did not do this. It can happen to anyone.”
According to activists, there are many “innocent” prisoners at El Buen Pastor, where hundreds of women have been held without trial — in some cases for up to several years.
One of its most famous inmates is Colombian trade unionist Liliany Obando, who languished in the jail for nearly four years without conviction before her release in March 2012.
Healthcare in the jail is notoriously inadequate, with just two doctors looking after more than 2000 inmates, and activists say its common for prisoners with chronic or terminal illnesses to be treated with paracetamol.
“When (El Buen Pastor inmate) Alondra Heredia fell sick, she found that being incarcerated was the least of her worries,” a human rights report by Justice for Colombia said.
“She suffers from Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the cancer has already spread to her brain. The doctors say she needs weekly chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, but she has not had any for three months. The doctors also told her she would need morphine to manage the pain but instead she is being given paracetamol.”