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