Despaired women hanging from staircases in weekly suicides were just some of the horrors witnessed by a petrified Aussie drug smuggler inside a hellhole Columbian prison.
Cassandra Sainsbury – who became known as 'Cocaine Cassie' – made the gut-wrenching revelation last month that she was “raped and stabbed twice” at the infamous El Buen Pastor prison.
She served three years there after being caught with 5kg of cocaine inside her luggage in April 2017 – and she opened up about her grim experiences with Ant Middleton on SAS Australia.
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And here we take a look inside the cold women’s only maximum-security jail to understand why it has such a bad reputation.
El Buen Pastor
It is based in the capital of Colombia, Bogota, and in English El Buen Pastor translates to The Good Shepherd.
Prison authorities host an annual beauty pageant inside the jail – but critics claim that this is for propaganda reasons rather than anything progressive.
The harsh reality is that El Buen Pastor is filthy and sprawling with women, children and babies who are packed into tiny three metre cells.
Some recent reports have suggested that 55,000 women are currently staying in the bullet ridden facility but human right watchdog Justice for Colombia said in 2012 that there were 2,2000 people there, despite the capacity being for 1,250.
And an American woman who spent years there for being a drug mule gave a rare interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2007 while serving her sentence.
She said: “Overall the jail here isn’t that bad. 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 refrigerators… and speaking English.”
But one visitor, photographer Jan Banning, gave a more ominous account after she was allowed inside the building.
She said some women were forced to sleep on the floor while others were packed into small spaces like cattle. Jan added that bullet holes were visible everywhere you looked while reiterating that it was dirty and too crowded.
However, El Buen Pastor is certainly a prison like no other and is famed for an annual beauty pageant where dolled up inmates are given high heels, formal gowns, sashes, tiaras and mini skirts before strutting across the sun-drenched prison yard. A woman from each of the institution's nine blocks is elected to take part.
Authorities release photos of the event each year and the glamorous lags are often seen smiling while flaunting their curves in honour of the Virgin of Mercedes, patron saint of prisons.
The co-ordinator of the pageant, Virginia Camacho, who is also secretary of the prison, said: “The fact that they made a mistake in their lives doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to be a human being feeling like a woman.”
Bosses also famously allowed inmates, including mums with young children, to go to a TEDx inspirational talk in 2015 and two years later breastfeeding rooms were opened inside the jail.
A Colombian Ministry of Health statement read: “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.”
But for Cassandra Sainsbury, her reality of El Buen Pastor is a lot more brutal than authorities will have you believe.
Cassandra was just 22 when she was sent to the prison that is home to both extremely dangerous murderers and petty criminals.
She was given a six-year sentence at the country's best known women's jail but the drug runner was given an early release after three years for overcrowding issues.
She said she had been tricked into drug smuggling after her family had been threatened and speaking about what it was like inside, she told Ant Middleton: “I had a lot of time to kind of process having been manipulated and tricked by someone I thought was my friend... having been raped.”
She added: “I had a lot of enemies. And obviously being the gringa in a Spanish prison, it just brings that attention of you know, rich white girl. Need to I guess bully her down until that's it?
“I had a lot of beatings. I got beaten up a lot. I got stabbed. I got two stab marks on my arms where I was stabbed. I went through a lot of things that I wouldn't wish on anyone ever.”
However, despite seeing others get slashed with knives and people hanging from staircases, she said she was determined to get through it.
She returned to Australia in 2022 – where she lives in Adelaide with her wife Tatiana. The former personal trainer is now an influencer with 34,700 Instagram followers and she sells an “hour glass body challenge” fitness programme.