Peru's prisons: Interview with priest, Sean Walsh
Since arriving to Lima on Sunday Zainab, Elena and I have been acclimatising to Peru's capital city. It's a dramatic landscape – the Pacific Ocean on one side, the dusty cliffs on the other and behind them the crowded bustling metropolis of Lima, home to around 8.5 million inhabitants.
Our first visit is to the British Embassy to meet with a man who has become an expert on the problems that foreign prisoners face in Peru. His name is Sean Walsh, the Archbishop, South America of the Eastern Catholic Church, Aramaic Rite. Since 2005 Walsh has been visiting foreign prisoners who are detained in the Sarita Colonia prison in the province of Callao. Also known simply as "Callao," the prison is located near to Lima airport and is the first place many of the British prisoners we help are taken to once they have been charged.
All foreign prisoners are kept together in a separate wing of the prison, among them 12 Britons Prisoners Abroad regularly helps with basic welfare support. We'll be visiting the prison next week, so our interview with Walsh is an excellent way of finding out what to expect on arrival. He assists, on a voluntary basis, British Embassy staff in visiting British prisoners and other incarcerated foreigners who are particularly vulnerable so far from home.
"Prison conditions are awful," says Walsh, who doesn't take long to list the many hardships faced by Callao's inmates. What's clear is just how vital money is to their survival in a system where they have to pay for virtually everything. "Everything is so dishonest," he says. Prisoners have to hand over cash for bedding – a foam mattress costs 60 sols, or £15, but it's more if you want a room to put it in. Some prisoners have to make do with lying down in corridors and on stairwells. Prisoners have to pay extra to supplement a meager diet of rice and beans, and even to move around the prison. To get from one area to the next, says Walsh, prisoners typically have to pay 25 pence. "One mentally ill patient didn't have any money but needed to get to the bathroom," recalls Walsh. A prison guard didn't allow him to pass without paying so he soiled himself on the spot.
Walsh estimates that a prisoner needs at least 30 sols, around £8 per month, in order to survive. One improvement Walsh helped achieve with the financial support of Prisoners Abroad was the introduction of water filters. Peruvian prisoners can often rely on their families to take in food and bottled water; foreign prisoners on the other hand, without family nearby, had to drink the regular, unclean water. As a result they were getting sick, says Walsh who describes the water filters as making "a huge difference". Nevertheless it's a challenge not getting ill in an overcrowded prison where the diet and living conditions are so poor. "Some prisoners are tubercular, some are anemic," says Walsh. There's also the worry that things are going to get worse with proposed cutbacks. Walsh says the prison authorities have indicated that even the most basic medicines like aspirins and painkillers will no longer be available and families will be expected to pay for them. I can imagine that this will mean greater demand on Prisoners Abroad's Medical Fund grants that pay for medical treatment prisons don't provide.
Unfortunately the situation for British and other foreign prisoners in Peru can still be precarious even after they have been released from prison. They often don't have the paperwork they need to be able to work, and they may have only limited Spanish if they have spent most of their time among foreign prisoners. It can also take up to seven months to get an exit permit to leave the country, although there's a Bill being drafted to Congress that proposes creating a fast-track process for this. Meanwhile, with no money and no-where to live foreign ex-prisoners in Peru can end up homeless and destitute, and are in danger of turning again to crime in order to survive. The most desperate are susceptible to falling prey to mafias that helped get them into trouble in the first place. It is a vicious circle that Walsh, and others we look forward to meeting on our trip, are trying to break. It has been fascinating listening to Walsh's perspective and we're looking forward to hearing soon from the prisoners themselves.
Thanks for reading, Jo
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