LIMA – With the health system overwhelmed in some regions, Peru has opened a new front in its fight against COVID-19 by registering a large concentration of infections in its overcrowded prisons, sparking a wave of violent riots to demand medicine and freedom.
So far, at least 21 prisoners have been killed by COVID-19 and some 650 infected, and among prison officials there are at least seven deaths, including the director of Trujillo prison, and some 180 infected. Nationwide, there are already 854 deaths and 31,190 cases.
The outbreak has affected famous prisoners such as Antauro Humala, brother of former president Ollanta Humala, while others such as the leader of the Popular Force party, Keiko Fujimori, who is in preventive detention, are demanding to be released for fear of infection.
“The state and the corresponding authorities, which are the Ministry of Justice and the National Penitentiary Institute (NPI), have not assumed the seriousness of the matter,” Stefano Corzo, researcher from the Citizen Security Area of the Legal Defense Institute, told EFE.
Quarantine measures were put in place in mid-March, and since then, Peruvian prisons have become life-threatening traps for the 97,500 prisoners who are held in 68 prisons, with a capacity for about 40,000 inmates, representing an overpopulation of approximately 238 percent.
“There are penalties with 600 percent overcrowding. In cells of four people, you can find up to 24 prisoners. If one of them is infected, it is most likely to spread to the entire cell and to the entire ward. There is no social distancing here. There is one on top of the other,” lawyer and former justice minister Gustavo Adrianzen told EFE.
Since the quarantine began, there have been successive riots. First in the prisons of northern Peru and now also in other regions.
“Unfortunately, it is very likely that it will spread throughout the country,” said Adrianzen.
The most dramatic incident took place on Monday in the Miguel Castro Castro prison in Lima, resulting in the deaths of nine inmates and injuring more than 60 prisoners, police and staff.
At the same time, there were riots in three other prisons, and inmates from the Lurigancho prison, close to Castro Castro, rose up on Tuesday. In that prison, the inmates took to the roofs with white flags and banners with messages such as “Medicines and freedom” and “Don’t take our lives.”
“Being imprisoned does not mean that you lose your fundamental right to life or physical integrity,” Adrianzen said.
The lawyer warned that there is a risk that the associations defending the rights of prisoners will denounce the state to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
“At any other time in the history of Peru, the nine deaths at Castro Castro would have cost the head of the minister of justice the next day. The minister must give explanations,” said Adrianzen, who held the same portfolio in 2015.
The situation has forced the government to close Sarita Colonia, the Callao prison where a large number of foreigners held for acting as drug mules are. The prisoners who tested negative for COVID-19 went to other already overcrowded prisons where episodes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have also begun to occur.
Between 13,500 and 15,000 prisoners have serious illnesses such as HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis, with at least another 6,000 over the age of 60.
Added to this is the lack of medical services. “There is supposed to be one doctor for each prison, but there is not. In some areas there is a single doctor for nine jails,” Corzo said.
The investigator also detected “an ineffectiveness in the implementation of the resources” destined to protect the inmates, since of the 13,000 tests received by the NPI, just over 2,000 have been used.
Likewise, the administrative headquarters of the NPI has barely used 0.5 percent of the 5.5 million soles ($1.6 million) it received from the government to deal with this situation.
To alleviate the risks in the prisons, the government approved a decree to pardon or to reduce the sentences of prisoners who have chronic diseases, are pregnant or who are over 60 years old.
But for Adrianzen, “this is not enough.”
“The president should not be afraid of giving pardons, commutations of sentence and rights of grace,” said Adrianzen, who recalled that there are thousands of prisoners without having been sentenced and in preventive detention that could be exchanged for other measures such as house arrest.
Of those who have been sentenced, some 20,000 inmates have sentences of less than eight years and 6,000 less than four years. All of them are non-recidivist offenders.
“The context is unprecedented. Therefore, the solutions will have to be as radical as the situation we are experiencing right now. Prisons must be decongested, but with people who have not committed serious crimes such as homicide or rape,” Corzo concluded.