Tuesday, January 1, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Prison Inmates Struggle To Survive In Peru's `Inferno'


LIMA, Peru - Guards armed with machine guns patrol the gray perimeter wall of Lurigancho prison but rarely venture inside, where emaciated inmates in rags spend their days picking through garbage for food.

The prisoners who populate the prison's brown, barren grounds are too violent and too diseased, the guards say.

Many are dying from tuberculosis.

Conditions in Lurigancho have always been notoriously bad. Then President Alberto Fujimori slashed government spending, and life become more tenuous.

Most of the prisoners in Lurigancho haven't even been convicted of a crime. Eight of 10 people in Lurigancho are still awaiting trial and some have been waiting eight years.

Others completed their sentences long ago but have not been released.

Lurigancho is sometimes seen ``as a Nazi-like problem, something like the final solution . . . for the poor,'' said Carlos Caparo Madrid, former director of the National Penetentiary Institute, the agency that runs the prisons.

Many of the inmates agree, and often call the prison a concentration camp.

Lurigancho, built to hold 2,800 prisoners, has about 5,500 inmates, but no one knows the exact number.

An average of two prisoners a day die from violence or sickness, especially tuberculosis.

``It's terrible here. You can get credit on as many drugs as you want. But there's no medicine. There's no food. All there is are guns, bullets and drugs,'' said Charles Weedon, 43.

Weedon, a British citizen, has served six years of a 10-year sentence for cocaine possession. He lives in Pavilion 7, the cell block where about 30 foreigners are kept.

Lacking bads, many prisoners sleep in the open. By day, they squat in garbage piles looking for food or hunch over small fires cooking in tin cans and worn pots. Most of the hundreds of dogs, cats and rats that once roamed Lurigancho have been eaten.

Critics of Peru's troubled, overcrowded penal system say lasting change will occur only if the system gets enough money to upgrade its every aspect.

But Peru is struggling with its worst economic crisis this century, and relief seems distant.

At one point, the daily budget to feed a Lurigancho prisoner fell below 10 cents per prisoner. Thousands of prisoners went on a hunger strike, forgoing the one bowl of thin gruel the government offered. Nothing changed.

Inmates are allowed to receive food from family members and friends, but much of the food is stolen by other prisoners or the guards.

Guards, who make about $100 a month, also sell food. Prisoners say bribes and kickbacks are common at every step.

Drug use is rampant. The most common drug used by the prisoners is ``pasta basica,'' semi-refined cocaine, that's rolled with tobacco and smoked.

``The only thing that keeps the prison more or less peaceful is the pasta basica,'' says the Rev. Hubert Lanssiers, a Belgian priest who has been working with prisoners for 15 years. ``It makes them sleep, and puts them in a constant dream of resignation.''

Even so, the prison is not peaceful. Many inmates carry long knives made of metal bed slats. Fights often claim inmate lives.

In a June 1986 prison riot, some 125 inmates who belonged to the Shining Path guerrilla movement were executed at Lurigancho after they surrendered to paramilitary police. The riot was part of a coordinated uprising in three Lima prisons during which about 250 inmates were killed.

Lurigancho is organized into 12 cell blocks. Unofficially, there is also cell block 13, a former chapel that houses about 35 prisoners, many of them homosexuals and transvestites.

Cell block 13 is dark as a cave. The walls are stained black from cooking fires. The inmates huddle and speak in frightened whispers.

Jose Santos Acosta has served four years of a six-year sentence for burglary. His clothes and skin are covered with filth. His voice is weak because he is dying of tuberculosis.

Acosta lifts up his ragged shirt to show a chest and abdomen with long scars. On his side is taped a dirty plastic bag that holds part of his intestines. Seven years ago he was shot by a policeman, and the wound has never properly healed.

``They can't operate on me until they cure my tuberculosis. But the doctor here doesn't want to give me the treatment I need,'' Acosta says.

Soon after he took office in July, Fujimori began a campaign to reform the entire judicial system. He used Lurigancho as an example.

``Look at the conditions they live in. The poor and outcast, people without means, are rotting away in the jails,'' he said.

Fujimori pledged to pardon hundreds of prisoners accused of minor crimes but never sentenced.

But the government has been slow to act on its promises, and few believe life in Lurigancho will improve soon.

``There's no doubt about it,'' Lanssiers said. ``Lurigancho is an inferno.''

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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