The riot in the Miguel Castro Castro jail in San Juan de Lurigancho, Lima, in which nine prisoners lost their lives, came as a timely reminder (if one were really needed) that Peru’s jails are but a hothouse for the propagation of the Covid-19 virus. Prison authorities say that 30 inmates have so far died in Peru’s jails, and at least 645 cases of infection have been uncovered. Of prison staff, seven have died and there are 224 cases of workers registering as positive.

Three weeks ago, we cited this as a key problem confronting the authorities. We also reported the appeal by the Washington Office on Human Rights for urgent measures throughout Latin America to free those being held on lesser crimes, many of them women.

Last week, in an editorial for La República, José Ugaz added his name to those appealing to the government to go well beyond the very limited measures it has so far announced in releasing prisoners convicted for lesser crimes.

Ugaz, the former head of Transparency International, cited some grim statistics about overcrowding. Peru currently has 68 jails with a capacity for holding 31,000 prisoners. Currently, there is a prison population of 95,500. Of these, 60% are being held on remand (awaiting trial) and only 40% have been sentenced.

Castro Castro was built for 2,000 prisoners. It now has a prison population of 5,500.

As in jails in other countries, the UK included, the very nature of prison life means many people confined in small spaces. But when overcrowding is so chronic, as in Peru, we are dealing with potential homicide on a grand scale. Prisoners too have human rights.

Ugaz argues that all prisoners should be temporarily freed and held on house arrest, except those being held on the most serious crimes or who represent a real danger to society. The prospect of possible freedom at the end of the Covid-19 crisis could act as a stimulus, he thinks, to good conduct once under house arrest.

The protests at Miguel Castro Castro were caused by the apparent indifference of the prison authorities to the death of one of the inmates, Carlos Garfias. Prisoners, contacted by the media, recounted how his corpse lay unattended for ten hours, while other inmates showed all the signs of infection by Covid-19 which the authorities ignored.

With the protests threatening to get out of hand, the prison authorities brought in 200 armed police. The deaths occurred on the morning of 28 April, as a result of gunshot wounds.

According to the Comptroller’s office, the INPE, the authority that runs Peru’s prison system, has only spent 10% of the budget given to it to a month ago to fight Covid-19 in the jails. This was supposed to be spent on contracting more staff and purchasing the equipment needed to control the spread of the disease.