Junior Moya is a Peruvian living in Lima who recently had the opportunity to visit the infamous men’s prison located in the run down district of San Juan de Lurigancho. In three parts, he tells us of his experience. (Thanks Junior!)
Two friends of mine visited a guy in prison (I won’t disclose any details or information pertaining why this fellow is in jail) a couple of Sundays ago. I simply could not believe the things I was told about the men’s prison in San Juan del Lurigancho, so I decided to tag along with them this past Sunday and see for myself what it was like. I knew it would be a scary experience, let alone a shocking one. Needless to say, I was not ready for what I encountered.
Getting inside: An ordeal that can be avoided by paying a bribe.
We got up at 5:30 am to eat breakfast and ride a bus for an hour to get to San Juan de Lurigancho from Miraflores. Once there, we stood in line outside the prison where tons of vendors sell food and toiletries for the visitors to take to the prisoners. Several vendors also have pants, blue jeans, light-color shirts and sandals for rent since visitors are not allowed to wear shorts, shoes and dark clothing items, the latter I was not aware of until one of the vendors pointed out I might not be allowed inside because of my black jersey. I decided I would wear it inside out, but it was still pretty dark, and as we approached the entrance, we were able to better read a sign on the wall that clearly states dark clothing is not allowed as well as canned or bottled food (for obvious reasons). We were able to barter off all of the canned tuna fish we bought the night before for a white t-shirt and some other edible goodies such as fruit and cookies.
Upon entering the facility, a cop wrote a number on our arms with a black marker and now we found ourselves standing in line again. Some people resorted to paying a bribe to the cops to get inside faster, which makes everyone else, well, a little upset. At this point, a cop came around to put a stamp on our arms and check our ID’s and a different cop came around to give us a form to fill out. One of my friends is from the States and it was amusing to see the cop’s reaction at the sight of a blue passport. There is no telling whether they’re in shock because they have never seen a blue passport before or because they think they may hit the jackpot. After filling out the form, the police allowed a certain number of people to move along to the next line where our bags got searched, where a cop told my American friend to take his belt off and leave it oustide. A sudden inability to communicate in Spanish was enough to get around that one. It was now time to stand in a different line to get our fingerprints done. At this point, a cop firmly stated he would start pulling those who look like criminals out of the line to conduct a random search. The American got pulled out of the line, which I thought was hysterical. Again, a sudden inability to communicate in a different language is a good way to stay out of trouble.
We then moved on to — yes, good guess — stand in a different line to get searched again and get a few more stamps on our arms. We then stand in line to get our bags searched yet again and then we proceeded to walk into a large room with several doors where a cop stood ready to frisk us yet again. We stand in line one final time to turn in our ID’s and get a metal piece with the number on our arms on it, which we used to claim our ID’s back upon leaving. We walked through a door and we are now inside.
Where are the cops?!
To our right, a big metal gate swings open and a horde of prisoners welcomed us into their grim reality. I started getting more nervous with each step I took towards one of the 21 buildings where the prisoners’ rooms are located. There were no cops around, so we were on our own now. I could feel myself going pale when some of the prisoners came up to us to “give us a hand” with our bags and “show us the way” in exchange for a few coins. I couldn’t help but think I could get killed inside and the police would have no clue about it. One prisoner was very persistent in trying to help us to the point where he started walking right next to me and thus scaring the living soul out of me. We made it to a door that led to an outdoor area and then we went through yet another door and into a building where a prisoner sits behind a table and plays receptionist to kill time and make some money. He took our names and then we proceeded to go upstairs where we came across a discoteque. Yes, a disco. There were shirtless guys dancing to the sound of disco music and enjoying the disco lights. Very amusing and well, creative. We were now walking down the hall and past the cuadras (the prisoners’ rooms) and I was probably white with terror at having one too many prisoners stare at me. Before long, we stumbled upon John (this is the name I will use to refer to the guy we visited) who gave me, a complete stranger, a warm and welcoming hug. We went into his cuadra where another 47 men share bunkbeds and the floor if they don’t have a mattress to sleep on. Each cuadra is the size of a shoebox where 2 men sleep on the same mattress and all 48 of them share the same bathroom — a toilet, a low-standing shower a foot away from the toilet and a urinal placed on the wall adjacent to the shower.
We went downstairs to an open area about the size of a concrete soccer field. Perhaps larger than that. Hundreds, if not thousands of men of all ages — from guys around my age (22) to older men who have been sentenced to over 15 years of prison — mill around this place. The prisoners make money by selling food, gelatine, hand-made bracelets, you name it. Several churches of different denominations have also been able to establish a congregation inside. A couple of dogs are also doing time in prison. Goodness knows what those dogs did to go to jail. John gives my friends a small gift and then proceeds to make me a bracelet out of black thread. A pretty nice gesture and token. Even though I was still scared, I stared feeling somewhat more relaxed. It’s time to get to know John.