LIMA – Thousands of convicts joined together to eradicate COVID-19 from one of Latin America’s biggest and most overcrowded jails.
Around 9,300 inmates at Peru’s Lurigancho prison armed themselves with infrared thermometers, fumigators and homemade masks to tackle the outbreak.
The facility is only designed to house 2,500 prisoners and was hit by the contagion in April which two months later appears to have been brought under control.
Cases have been decreasing and calm has been restored in the cells and corridors after the pandemic sparked riots in prisons across the country.
Nationally more than 2,600 inmates have been infected and almost 250 have died, with around 50 still being treated in hospital and 1,500 recoveries.
There have been 31 deaths at Lurigancho, which currently houses 9,322 prisoners, almost 10 percent of the total number in Peru.
Around 330 tests have been carried out at the prison, of which almost 160 were positive.
Doctor Jorge Cuzquen, head of health for prisons in the region, says he suspects the real number of cases was much higher.
“The situation became really critical,” he tells EFE.
There was a riot on April 28 a day after the Miguel Castro Castro Prison, located one kilometer away, reported nine inmate deaths from the virus.
Rafael Castillo, acting president of the National Penitentiary Institute of Peru (Inpe), who took over the leadership during the emergency, tells EFE: “We explained everything we had planned to do and postponed the protest.”
Lurigancho required an urgent response as many prisoners had serious illnesses that would put them at a higher risk if they contracted COVID-19.
Around 500 prisoners, an entire wing, have tuberculosis, another 280 are HIV positive and 353 others have conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure or are at an advanced age.
Gustavo Martinez, part of a team of inmates responsible for screening fellow prisoners, tells EFE: “We were very concerned that the virus would spread but thanks to the protocols the number of affected has decreased.”
A team was set up for each wing of the prison and Lurigancho became a model for Peru’s other 67 jails.
“Each one of them will not be able to beat this disease. You have to work together,” Castillo says.
Specially trained prisoners were stationed along Lurigancho’s central corridor guarding the entrances to each wing.
They were dressed in full biosecurity suits and armed with electronic thermometers and disinfectant so they could screen anyone who wanted to enter the wing.
“The population was also informed that they can approach us if they have any symptoms or discomfort,” Martinez explains.
Inmates were also trained to operate medical instruments such as the pulse oximeter, which measures blood oxygen saturation.
Prisoners also began making their own masks, adapting materials in the facility’s shoe workshop.
“Given the need, we had to change and adapt to the situation,” Segundo Vidarte, manager of the workshop, tells EFE.
If a prisoner develops COVID-19 symptoms he is taken to the prison’s sports field, where an emergency health center was constructed, for more tests and x-rays.
Those with mild symptoms are given medication and put into isolation.
More serious cases are put under observation in one of the jail’s workshops which has been converted into a hospital ward with 70 beds and a team of 60 health workers.
“I was there for 10 days and managed to recover,” one young inmate says.
During the peak of the outbreak 40 of the beds were occupied and there are now six patients, who are only transferred to hospital if they deteriorate.
“The idea is to create an epidemiological containment ring and stabilize the inmate within the same prison facility to avoid them being taken to the public health network, which is quite saturated,” Castillo says.
The strategy appears to have worked and there have been no COVID-19 deaths at Lurigancho for a month, as cases have been detected early and not led to severe pneumonia.
Outside of prison the risk of contagion is high and Peru’s hospitals are overwhelmed.
The country is currently the sixth-worst affected in the world and second worst in Latin America, with almost 255,000 confirmed cases and 8,000 deaths.