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Peru’s prison conditions – a state of emergency

Whether ultimately found innocent or guilty, Dungannon woman Michaella McCollum Connolly and Scot, Melissa Reid, face the prospect of a lengthy stay in Peru’s overcrowded and under-resourced prison system.          

In fact there are twice as many prisoners as there are prison places. Last year there was a total prison population of 57,095 but only space for 28,257 prisoners. Many prisoners find themselves sleeping on the floor for lack of jail beds.

One of the reasons for the rising prison population has been the growing number of foreign nationals arrested in Peru – primarily for cocaine trafficking out of the country. Peru, alongside neighbouring Colombia and Bolivia, has become one of the main countries of origin for the illegal drug in recent years. Potential profits from the illicit trade are high, but so are the penalties for those caught and found guilty: 6 to 12 years in prison for possession with intention to traffic; 8 to 15 years for drug production or trafficking.

So chronic have the problems of overcrowding, poor conditions and corruption become in Peru’s jails, that last year the government declared a state of emergency in the country’s penal system.

Representatives from Prisoners Abroad, a charity which works to support UK citizens detained overseas, visited a number of prisons in Peru in October to see at first hand the conditions of detention.

In Sarita Colonia prison, north of Lima, they found evidence of massive overcrowding with 2,800 inmates held in a prison built for 570. Prisoners said they were expected to pay for beds and bedding, food, laundry, access to telephones and even to move around the prison. Many prisoners are forced to sleep in corridors or hallways because they cannot afford a bed in a cell.

Prisoners held in the women’s wing of Piedras II, one of Peru’s newer prisons, also reported being forced to pay for everything at inflated prices and complained of a lack of clean drinking water. Throughout the prison system there is very limited access to medical care due to a lack of medical personnel and healthcare facilities

The US State Department’s 2012 report on human rights in Peru said that prisoners were vulnerable to abuse by guards and other prisoners and confirmed that prisoners who lacked money to pay for basic essentials experienced much more difficult conditions than those with funds.

One of the reasons for the level of overcrowding in the prison system is that criminal cases are generally marked by lengthy periods of pre-trial detention – which means Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid may face years behind bars before they ever get their day in court.

In fact, most of Peru’s prisoners have not actually been found guilty of any wrong-doing. Figures from Peru’s prison service estimated that 59 per cent of those currently in prison were awaiting trial.

A 2012 report by Peruvian human rights organisation, the Instituto de Defensa Legal, found that most of those held while facing charges, end up spending at least nine months in pre-trial detention.

In some cases it can be even longer than this and a number of those surveyed reported that they had been held in pre-trial detention for 18 months.

Peru’s government is working to improve the country’s prison system. Last year the country’s president, Ollanta Humala, announced that $13.5 million was to be spent on improving meals, healthcare and facilities.

This is a step in the right direction but likely to be woefully inadequate given the scale of the problem. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners provide guidelines for how people should be treated while in prison or detention but Peru’s chronic overcrowding means that the country needs to do much more to meet these international standards.

Meanwhile, the country’s prisoners – those found guilty and those like Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid, who are still awaiting charge and trial – will have to endure conditions much worse than are found in most of Europe.

More on Peru’s prison conditions in this BBC report from Will Grant.

A version of this article was published today in the Belfast Telegraph, but is not yet online.

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