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Posted on 16 October 2012

Our first prison visit: Piedras Gordas

Nothing could prepare us for the shock of our first prison visit since arriving in Peru. After reading this blog you'll find out why. We travelled to Piedras Gordas, one of Peru's new prisons built to the north of Lima and located in the district of Ancon. Our journey took us back on the road towards the airport where we enjoyed the sight of dare-devil sport enthusiasts paragliding over the capital's skyscrapers and surfers riding the massive waves of the Pacific Ocean.

As we drove through the outskirts of the city the environment became visibly poorer. We passed through endless streets of low-rise buildings dotted here and there with small family-run businesses. Lima and its environs are cloaked in a brown, silty dust that clings to everything – buildings, cars and palm trees – and may be the reason I was rubbing my eyes a lot. As we advanced towards our destination, we looked up wide-eyed at the shanty towns perched precariously on the hillsides either side of the road. People live in tiny brick or adobe huts, or laminated metal structures without pavements and the most basic services like running water and electricity. "God loves you," and "Christ Lives" are words people who live in these settlements have scratched out in big letters on the hillsides to remind themselves they are not totally forsaken in a country where half of the population lives in poverty and 20% live in extreme poverty. The road to Piedras Gordas prison was a brown dirt track that you can't easily get to by foot. For those without a car there are small motorised rickshaws to hire.

We headed first toward the high-security part of the prison known as "Piedras Gordas I." It is where the leaders of drug and organised crime cartels are held. During the half an hour we waited outside the prison entrance I looked around the desolate landscape. We could have been in a desert environment it was so dry and dusty, and also very cold. I really needed the jacket and jumper I was wearing although it is now spring in Peru. We were delayed because we were told prison agents were doing a search of the cells that morning. Finally a dozen or so agents in uniform and black baseball caps embossed with the yellow insignia of the prison authorities, known in Spanish as INPE, emerged from the entrance. We knew we would soon be seeing John, our one client in this part of the prison. After we passed along a number of corridors we were searched by two women guards and our mobile phones were confiscated. One visitor was walking through a metal detector as we entered.

Finally we met with John. He was pleased to see us, but he was visibly shaken by the cell searches that had just taken place. "Everything has been turned upside down," he said. "They (the prison agents) have just taken my food, pasta and rice and biscuits." It was a good day for us to arrive. Zainab, Elena and I were there with a representative from the British consulate who was delivering vitamins and survival grants for food and other basic items paid for by Prisoners Abroad supporters. There was one thing particularly troubling John. His application for parole had been delayed for three months because his papers had been sent to the wrong place – not surprising in a country where bureaucratic mismanagement is common. But at least the prisoner on the wing who was the go-between with the prison authorities, the so-called "delegado", had been removed. He was abusive and involved in extortion, John told us. Like other clients we met with later on that day he complained about the food, which he described as "disgusting". Mentally John came across as clear and coherent, but he has been visibly physically weakened by the prison diet. He looked very pale and was probably anaemic. He gets bread and jam for breakfast, coffee, maybe some oatmeal. The midday meal is chicken bones with rice, only twice a week he'll get flesh on the chicken or other meat he's given. In the evening he normally gets some "vile" soup. It's difficult to say goodbye to him, leaving him alone in such a cold, hostile environment. But so far from home he said he was lucky to have a señora, a girlfriend who visits him regularly, who he hoped will retrieve the food that was taken from his cell earlier that day.

Next we were driven on to the female wing of "Piedras II" to meet with the four Britons who were transferred less than a week ago from women's prisons in Lima as part of the government policy of tackling prison overcrowding in the capital. The security drill was predictably rigorous as we were shown the way to meet our clients. Piedras Gordas is a giant complex accommodating about 3,000 prisoners in total, about 400 of whom are foreigners. There were signs that the super-structure is still being completed as we walked past workmen in hard hats drilling away at concrete slabs. We were escorted down long corridors from which we could only see barbed wire and watchtowers. While I was at first impressed with the modern, clean look of the prison, after a while I was struck by its emptiness, the lack of any furniture, or equipment - a giant, empty, concrete shell.

Our clients were still visibly shell-shocked after their prison transfer, which took place at 2 o’clock one morning the previous week. One had lost two bags during the trip, another didn't have time to take her washing off the line. They were wearing leggings and light sports tops, and socks with flip-flops that were obviously little protection against the cold. One woman we can call Susi was hunched up on a plastic chair with a chest infection that she hadn't received any medicine for.  She told us they had to shower outside and they were locked in their cells for 24 hours a day. While all of the four women were happy to share information they were generally so frustrated and desperate about their situation that only one woman gave us permission to use her real name.

They described the problem of corruption in the prison as endemic. They had to pay for everything that was sold at inflated prices, so a snack usually costing 75 pence would be sold to them for twice that amount. "What can we do?" asked Susi, "they know we have to eat." Also shocking was the lack of drinking water, which Susi said they had to fight for. It immediately made Elena, Zainab and me think that a pressing task was to get them a water filter installed as Prisoners Abroad had succeeded in doing for our male clients. It would obviously make a huge difference. The lack of stimulation was also a terrible burden. All of them had managed to keep busy in the prisons where they were held previously: Susi did hairdressing; Karen took knitting and ceramic classes. Here, they told us, they had nothing to do.

As we left I looked into Karen's sad eyes. They said everything. They not only transmitted a terrible sadness but also a fear of the unknown, what the future would bring. I have thought of them many times since then and wondered how they are coping alone and isolated amid the freezing mountains of Ancon.

I had been sick during my prison visit and couldn't join Elena and Zainab when they met the male prisoners - the next blog will be a joint account of their visit.


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