American Woman Faces Bleak Life in Peru's Frigid Mountain Prison

The Associated Press -- Friday, 12 January 1996

by Lynn F. MonahanAssociated Press Writer

LIMA, Peru (AP) - In the prison where a New York woman is sentenced to spend the rest of her life, many of the windows have no glass to stop the frigid mountain winds.

The beds are concrete and the cells have no lights. Prisoners wash their own clothes, and the water is so cold it turns their fingers purple.

Lori Berenson, 26, was convicted of treason Thursday by a secret military court for allegedly aiding leftist guerrillas of the pro-Cuban Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. The life sentence was the harshest allowed under Peruvian law.

The court ordered her sent to Yanamayo prison, a maximum-security prison for convicted rebels on a barren plateau in the Andes Mountains, 12,000 feet above sea level near the Bolivian border.

"It's going to be very tough for her," said Miguel Ruiz Conejo, who spent 15 months in Yanamayo wrongly accused of aiding another guerrilla group.

Ruiz Conejo, an agricultural engineer, was arrested in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison for his friendship with a man who, unbeknownst to him, was a rebel leader. He was freed in January 1994 after President Alberto Fujimori intervened in his case and he was absolved.

Ruiz Conejo describes Yanamayo as a rigidly controlled institution on a wind-swept mesa surrounded by a mine field and barbed wire. Soldiers with automatic weapons patrol the perimeter.

"When you are in there, the attacks of depression are strong," he said. "Not only are people depressed, they're desperate."

Prisoners spend 23 1/2 hours a day in cells 6 1/2 feet by 10 feet. They have a toilet, a faucet with ice-cold running water and a concrete bench for a bed. The only electric light comes from the passageway. Most cells house two inmates.

"The cold is terrible. You are always exposed to the cold. The installation has no heating. Many times there is no glass in the windows, just bars," Ruiz Conejo said.

Among his worst memories was hand-washing his clothing in the freezing water.

"When I washed my clothing in the beginning, my fingers would turn purple. The cold would make my fingers split," he said.

His description of the prison was similar to other accounts published in recent years. Because access to the prison is strictly controlled, few journalists have been allowed inside.

Prisoners get only a half hour a day in the courtyard. It is the only time they feel the warmth of the sun, Ruiz Conejo said.

In winter - June, July and August in the southern hemisphere - temperatures drop below freezing and the prison-issued blankets, two per prisoner, are little comfort.

Inmates generally get more blankets and extra clothing from relatives or friends, but the colors are restricted. Nothing red, black or yellow is allowed - prison officials don't want them making rebel flags. Green is banned because it might appear military.

The three meals a day are spartan and leave prisoners hungry, Ruiz Conejo said. They are made up mostly of potatoes, rice and beans or lentils. Meat is rare, and when it comes it's usually tripe.

All meals are eaten with a spoon that is regularly inspected to make sure its edges have not been sharpened. Prisoners are allowed no metal in the cells, no radios and no newspapers or magazines. Novels are the only reading material permitted. Yanamayo has no library.

Discipline is strict. Ruiz Conjeo said guards collect inmates' mail to prevent them from receiving coded messages in series of letters.

But Ruiz Conejo said the guards were not abusive.

At the height of an insurrection by the Shining Path, a movement much larger than Tupac Amaru, jailed rebels were able to turn some prisons into indoctrination centers for their cause. In Lima's notorious Canto Grande prison, inmates plastered the walls with posters of Mao, Marx and their leader Abimael Guzman, put on anti-government plays and marched to the International in the open courtyards.

In 1992, the government wrested control of those prisons. During the battle at Canto Grande, 36 prisoners and two police officers were killed.

Yanamayo was built in 1991, and has always kept prisoners in cellblocks under lock and key.

Berenson's family and lawyers complained about Peru's justice system, which tried her in a secret military court with little time to argue her case and no opportunity to cross-examine her accusers. Human rights groups say Peru's draconian anti-terrorist laws deny defendants due process.

Berenson might still escape the hardship and deprivation at the Yanamayo penitentiary. A U.S.-Peruvian treaty allows American prisoners to request transfer to U.S. facilities to serve out their sentences.

But Berenson has not indicated she would ask to be transferred. Peru's attorney general said Friday that the treaty deals with common crimes and may not be applicable to treason.

The U.S. State Department has called on Peru to try Berenson in open, civilian court, but President Alberto Fujimori said Friday in Caracas, Venezuela, that he believed the secret trial had been fair.