Peru opens new high-altitude prison

18 July 2016

On 9 July, Peru opened its newest prison at 4,100 metres above sea level in Cochamarca, in the central Andes. The country has the dubious honour of being host to some of the highest and most inhospitable prisons in the world, including the Challapalca prison, located at 4,600 metres. These prisons have been the subject of multiple interventions by Amnesty International and other advocates who claim that subjecting prisoners to extreme altitudes may amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The new prison in Cochamarca has again placed a spotlight on a Peruvian penitentiary system in deep crisis, with prisons overpopulated by 127%, and commentators signalling that it is on the verge of collapse. According to the National Penitentiary Institute (INPE), as of August 2015, the prison population was 75,637, registering a six percent increase on the previous year. This amounts to an increase of 36 percent since July 2011. President-elect Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has correctly noted a capacity deficit of 40,000 prisoners.

The Human Rights Ombudsman attributes this massive increase in the prison population to multiple causes, chief among them excessive use of preventative prison decisions and a reduction in early release orders, even when petitions are made on humanitarian grounds. However, in the background is an increasingly authoritarian approach towards law and order by the political class. Often portrayed as ‘undeserving’, any move towards reforming what many view as a broken criminal justice system in the interests of some of the most vulnerable persons in the country seems a remote prospect. In the recent presidential election, candidates competed with one another to demonstrate their tough law and order credentials, with Keiko Fujimori pledging to build five new prisons above 4,000 metres.

In 2012, the Humala government refused a request by the UN Committee Against Torture to visit and evaluate two high-altitude prisons (Challapalca and Yanamayo). Significant evidence exists of a prison system which breeds a permissive environment for human rights violations to occur. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission has highlighted in various annual reports that opportunities for abuse, including torture, were evident in prisons nationwide. Peruvian NGOs such as the Commission on Human Rights (COMISEDH) frequently document signs of abuse among the prison population.

As the Human Rights Ombudsman expands its remit in this area as the officially designated National Preventive Mechanism under the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, a vital part of its work will be to monitor the performance of the INPE and its prison officials. Prisons have been a perennial concern for the office, given that they have so often been associated with violations of rights. The office has its work cut out, in an area where it will probably receive few plaudits from the political elite or the general public

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  • PSG Aims

    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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    Over the past century Peru has suffered a series of autocratic governments and a civil war in which nearly 70,000 people died. Many of the country's ongoing political and social problems are a legacy of its somewhat turbulent past. 

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    Human rights violations were widespread during the twenty years after the initiation of armed conflict in 1980. Efforts to convict perpetrators since the war's end have made only limited progress. Today, concerns remain over the treatment of those engaged in social protest, particularly against strategically important investment projects.

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