A group that is particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus is that in the Peruvian prison system. The system is chronically overcrowded. According to the head of the National Prisons Council, Gerson Villar, the total capacity of the system is 40,600 prisoners; the number currently in jail totals more than double that, 97,600.

In a letter to the president of the judiciary last week, Villar announced the extraordinary step of refusing to take more people into custody for the duration of the state of emergency, citing the ruling published on 11 March advising “the competent authorities” to take steps to mitigate risks arising from the concentration of people in spaces likely to facilitate the spread of the virus. This may undermine the force of the argument that those disregarding the curfew and other regulations will be jailed.

Beyond overcrowding, conditions in Peru’s jails are notoriously bad. Human rights organisations have repeatedly urged the authorities to take steps to improve the conditions in which prisoners are forced to live. These include dilapidated infrastructure, inadequate sanitary conditions and the paucity of decent healthcare facilities.

The Washington-based human rights organisation, WOLA, last week published an appeal to governments throughout Latin America to avoid prisoners being given what it called a “death sentence” through exposure to Cofid-19. In particular, it pointed to the dangers facing women, many of whom are in jail for low-level offences with unduly lengthy sentences.

“Immediate action is needed now to dramatically reduce the region’s prison population in order to prevent a huge toll in illness and deaths” WOLA demands.

In Peru, as in many other countries, large numbers of prisoners are held on remand, pending trial. The extreme lentitude of the judicial system in passing sentence is placing further huge pressure on the prison system.

The WOLA statement cited UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, saying that despite the difficult decisions facing governments “I urge them not to forget those behind bars, or those confined in places such as closed mental health facilities, nursing homes and orphanages because the consequences of neglecting them are potentially catastrophic”.

It emerged last week that several cases of Covid-19 had been detected in prisons in Lima and Callao.