Released in the Midst of Quarantine

A few years ago, I briefly wrote about the opportunity I had to connect with two men who had aged-out of a children’s home years ago and subsequently ended up in prison. Since returning to Peru in September, I have started visiting them again.

One of the 21 cell blocks at the Lurigancho Prison in Lima

Needless to say, the prison system here is very different than in the United States. Lurigancho Prison, where these two men are, is the most overcrowded jail in the entire country. Originally built with a capacity for 2,500 inmates, the prison now has 7,000 within its walls. The prison is so severely understaffed that the guards have turned the control over to the inmates themselves. For the most part, the guards just keep a perimeter around the jail and maintain a presence at the main gate. Inmates are more or less free to do as they please within the walls of the prison. It goes without saying that this system opens the door for countless human rights violations and corruption is an institutionalized part of the prison culture.

If you want to read more in-depth about the conditions in prison, I encourage you to read these articles from The Independent, from The British Medical Journal or this photo essay.

Peru began a nationwide quarantine due to the COVID-19 outbreak on March 16 that has been extended repeatedly (currently through at least May 10). As in other parts of the world, prisons here have been a hotspot for the spread of the virus. Over the last few weeks, there has been growing unrest among prisoners nationwide that has now begun to boil over. The strict quarantine means that no visitors are allowed in or out, which means that no money, drugs, prostitutes, etc. are able to come or go—all of which are critical to maintaining homeostasis in the prison. Aside from that, there are anecdotes that the coronavirus has run rampant among the inmates, and there is almost no healthcare available to them. Earlier this week, a riot broke out in another jail in Lima that resulted in the death of nine inmates.

Inmates at Lurigancho Prison on the roof holding up a banner demanding Coronavirus tests

One of the guys I have been visiting was very excited that his sentence of seven years in jail was coming to an end on April 25. At the same time, he has been quite nervous for a number of months as to what life is going to look like after prison. Having no family, no financial assets, and a criminal record, his options are bleak. On top of this, he has struggled with drugs and alcohol. I am excited to say that our partner ministry, Paths of Hope, and Health Bridges International are partnering together to walk with him as he tries to build a life for himself.

April 25 came and went. He was not released. A few more days went by, and this past Tuesday he was called into processing to be let out. He was asked for a bribe in exchange for his prompt release; even if he wanted to pay he didn’t have any money. In exchange, he was set free nearly two hours past the nation-wide 6pm curfew. No one is allowed on the streets, and there is no public or private transit allowed. He called me from a pay phone to let me know what was going on, but there was nothing anyone could do. He spent his first night of freedom making the long walk (without so much as shoes on his feet) from the prison to the historic center of Lima, about seven miles.

He later told me that he found a deflated air mattress that had been left out for trash. He wrapped himself up in the mattress as best he could and spent the remainder of the evening sleeping in a park. He told me that it really wasn’t that bad and said honestly, it was more comfortable than his sleeping arrangements in jail. There were times when he would have to share an old foam twin mattress on the floor with up to three other inmates and another time when he was literally locked in the garbage room for a week (his punishment for being accused of stealing from another inmate).

He called me early the next morning. We were still not allowed on the streets to go and see him because of the strict quarantine orders, but we were able to have an authorized taxi send him a care package that we had worked on putting together with Carmen, from Health Bridges. We sent some new clothes, non-perishable food items, a Bible, a journal, toiletries, a little bit of cash and an old cell phone. He explained exactly where he was standing and what clothes he was wearing. We sent the taxi out, praying that the driver would find him. In no time at all, he called me from the cell phone to let me know that the handoff had been a success!

Now that we had established an easy line of communication, we had one final hurdle – housing. While there are a few ministries and programs in Lima who work with and house ex-inmates and struggling addicts, no one is able to take him in until after the quarantine ends. A stable job would be incredibly hard for him to come by under normal circumstances. In our current situation, it is impossible. Our goal, then, was to find a safe place where he would be able to stay temporarily until the quarantine ends. The problem is that almost all hotels and hostels are closed by government decree. A small team of us made phone call after phone call while our friend walked through the streets looking for a place to stay. We kept coming up empty. Eventually, I found a hotel who said that they would be able to receive him with room and board – only to find out later that their Google Maps place marker was wrong. They were located far away in the jungle, not the city of Lima! We called and called, but the 6pm curfew was looming, and there was no one available to take him in. Thankfully, after literally begging and pleading with the owner of a small mom-and-pop hostel, he found a room on the condition that he would leave first thing the following morning.

The next day yielded much better results. I eventually found a hotel that was offering food and lodging, as long as we prepaid upfront at the beginning of the stay. He is in much better spirits. He has spent two nights thus far, and we are asking that he self-isolate in his hotel room for the next two weeks.

Please continue to keep him in your prayers over these next weeks and months.

– Pray that he would be surrounded by a community who can continue to help him move toward his new goals, to turn a new page.
– Pray that he would feel supported and encouraged on the path that he has chosen, even in the absence of physical contact with friends and others who care about him.
– Pray for his long journey toward recovery, that the Lord would draw near to him and make His presence known in a brand new way.

I am so thankful to see the ways in which the Lord has provided for this young man over the last week in spite of having lived a life in which he has always felt that the deck was stacked against him.

We would not be able to show him this love and support if we didn’t have a community of friends, family and supporters like you assisting us.

Thank you for being a part of his life!

– Billy


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