Letter from Lima — From the February 2012 issue
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Letter from Lima — From the February 2012 issue
I first visited Lurigancho in 2008, hoping to teach a creative-writing class, and went all over the prison, in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to recruit students. At the time, Lurigancho held nearly a quarter of Peru’s inmates, and overcrowding had reached a crisis point. The prison, originally built for a couple thousand men, had become home to more than 11,000. Shanks were sold openly, as were crack pipes, ingeniously fashioned from bent scraps of metal. Thin, bare-chested men slumped against the walls, covered in scars, wearing the downcast, narrow gaze of drug addicts. Tuberculosis was rampant. Lurigancho was producing some thirty tons of trash a week, much of it uncollected, while the poorest inmates fed themselves by sifting through this refuse for anything edible. A gray scarf hung from an old radio tower, the prison’s unofficial flag — a memento of a drug-addled inmate who’d escaped from the psychiatric clinic, climbed the tower, and hanged himself. So severe was the crowding that a few hundred homeless squatters had taken over an abandoned building to create an informal twenty-first housing block. In most prisons, if inmates had access to hammers, concrete, bricks, shovels, spades, and the like, one imagines they’d use them to escape. Instead, when I visited Block Twenty-One, I found the residents hard at work, building a wall around their new home so they could have a safe place to walk after dark.
In July 2009 government authorities declared Lurigancho closed to new inmates. Since then, the population has declined by nearly 40 percent, which is both a great relief and a serious problem. Lurigancho today is a calmer, generally safer place to do time. But because much of the prison’s economy depends on visitors and the money and supplies they bring, it’s also much poorer. The harsh reality of imprisonment is that the longer you’re away, the more likely it is that you’ll be forgotten. As one man put it to me, “That first year, even your dog and cat come to visit. After that, you’re on your own.” Fewer new inmates means fewer visitors, which in turn translates into tighter budgets for maintenance and security. Water often runs out, the overloaded electrical grid breaks down every few days, and vital repairs simply can’t be paid for.
The economic crisis has had repercussions, even in Block Seven. With the exception of a few very wealthy inmates, all of Lurigancho’s men, including the most drug addicted, must do some work to survive: there are painters, bricklayers, electricians, massage therapists, lawyers, doctors, and cooks inside. A fairly rigid class structure has emerged alongside the block’s democratic system: some men live alone in relative luxury, while others share a cell, one paying rent to the other, or both paying rent to a third. If they can’t afford that, inmates make their home in El Gran Hermano (the Big Brother) — named after the Peruvian version of the reality-television franchise. There, some thirty-five men sleep on triple bunk beds beneath a leaky roof, in conditions that have more in common with life in La Pampa. Poorer still are those living in La Candelaria, a narrow, dirty crawl space behind the kitchen, less a living area than a drug den with cots. Many of these men, known colloquially as rufos, are addicted to crack and are a skinny, unhealthy-looking bunch who hustle or steal to stay high. They are the cheap-labor force of Block Seven, responsible for much of the housekeeping and maintenance. A third of these men are not officially designated to live here but have been accepted on a conditional basis, as “residents.” They clean the cells of the moneyed inmates, work in the block’s many restaurants, and sweep the yard every evening. If a rufo’s drug use gets out of control, if he steals or starts fights, he risks expulsion. Even good behavior doesn’t give him the full privileges of citizenship: many can’t vote, for example.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays — family days — a rufo who hasn’t showered and shaved is not permitted in the block, so as not to frighten the women and children. And when the well-off receive guests, the block’s clean-shaven rufos and its working class attend to the visitors’ needs. They serve food and drink, ferry messages, carry heavy packages from the prison gate to the block. Some of the foreigners, whose families are far away, rent their cells out to poorer inmates who have no private place for a conjugal visit. Money is the prison’s lifeblood, which is why, though crowding was down, and the prison more livable, no one was really celebrating. For both campaigns, the dire economic situation would be the election’s most pressing issue.
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