LIMA, PERU, AUG. 3 -- At San Juan de Lurigancho prison, women waited in a long line one recent day to deliver the sustenance that keeps their husbands, fathers and sons alive -- baskets of bread, fruit and vegetables to supplement the meager meals that prison authorities provide once a day.
Some of the women lugged heavy pails full of water. "They haven't been able to depend on water to wash, even to drink, for months," said Carmen Rosa Sanchez, struggling with her sloshing burden. "They are forgotten."
Back in downtown Lima, it was another slow day at the Palace of Justice, known by most Peruvians as the Palace of Injustice. There were more long lines of inmates' relatives, this time trying to prod a system so slow that prisoners wait in jail as long as three years before being brought to trial.
Virtually all of Peru's institutions are in crisis, but none more than the justice system. Diego Garcia-Sayan, a prominent student of Peruvian justice explains: "In any country in the world, prisons and prisoners are perhaps the last priority. Imagine what being the last priority means in a country like Peru."
The police force is riddled with corruption. Judges and court clerks routinely demand bribes to move cases along. Inside the squalid, overcrowded prisons -- where an estimated seven out of 10 prisoners are still awaiting their day in court -- money buys food, water, protection.
Since his inauguration last Saturday, President Alberto Fujimori has made the administration of justice a major issue. The system "is intolerable . . . a violation of human rights," he said Sunday. "Those who do not have money are rotting in the jails."
"It would be interesting to conduct a poll to find out what people think of the Palace of Justice, which is called the Palace of Injustice," Fujimori said. "How many prisoners are unjustly jailed? How many are held for a year without being tried?"
These unusually strong words from the new president have sparked a public debate, and judicial officials have acknowledged many of the problems, including the widespread corruption. But thus far, no one has offered real hope that things will improve anytime soon.
"The state is in such a financial condition that it wants to reduce overall spending," said Jose Antonio Burneo, a lawyer who works with the Center for Studies and Actions for Peace, a church-sponsored human rights group. "If there cannot be more financial support . . . I do not see solutions in the short term."
No one knows exactly how many inmates there are in Peruvian prisons (no census has been conducted for years) but the working figure is around 20,000. Of that total, nearly 7,000 are housed in San Juan de Lurigancho, Peru's largest prison, a tumbledown complex tucked against a barren hillside outside Lima. It was designed for a maximum inmate population of 1,500.
In June 1986, accused Shining Path insurgents inside San Juan de Lurigancho and another Lima-area prison staged a mutiny. Government forces killed 124 prisoners inside San Juan de Lurigancho in a massacre that focused attention on Peru's crowded, inadequate prison system.
It was a visit to San Juan de Lurigancho two weeks ago that reportedly prompted Fujimori's critical comments. Normally even-tempered to a fault, Fujimori was visibly angry when he discussed the issue. Associates said he was outraged at what he saw.
By far the most critical issue inside the prison is food. Authorities currently spend the equivalent of less than 10 cents per prisoner per day on food. Relatives say prisoners are never fed more than once a day, sometimes less.
Garcia-Sayan, who heads the Andean Commission of Jurists and was offered the job of justice minister by Fujimori but turned it down, said drugs are widely available inside the prison -- especially coca paste, a crude, smokable precursor of cocaine.
"In fact, the drug is very functional as far as prison authorities are concerned because it cuts hunger," Garcia-Sayan said. "What in the world would you do with more than 6,000 guys, dying of hunger, who were in possession of all their physical and mental faculties? Drugs bring other problems, but the prisoners resolve them among themselves."
Prisoners who have money, status, or both, like drug traffickers, are able to secure food, water, living space and other necessities, often with the complicity of prison guards. As far as supervision is concerned, there are parts of the prison that guards do not dare enter.
Peru's second-largest correctional institution is the nearby Canto Grande prison, a similarly overcrowded facility that has two wings devoted to suspected Shining Path guerrillas. The Shining Path prisoners use their own locks to keep prison guards out and refuse to allow searches.
It was at Canto Grande that 48 members of Peru's other leading insurgency -- the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement -- including the group's leader, Victor Polay, managed a daring escape three weeks ago, fleeing through an elaborate tunnel that had taken more than a year to dig. Several prison officials are under suspicion of having helped the prisoners escape, or at least having looked the other way.
According to the constitution, the justice system is supposed to receive no less than 2 percent of the country's annual budget. In practice, it gets around 1 percent -- last year, a total of about $15 million. The lack of funds affects not only the conditions in the prisons but also the way the entire system works.
In the Peruvian system, judges investigate and assemble cases. Testimony at a trial is not elicited through an adversarial process; rather, the judge directs all questioning. Judges are young, often barely out of law school, and have the status of a rather low-paid civil servant.
Many judges supplement their salaries by accepting payments to move cases ahead -- a problem that even judicial authorities acknowledge. "Most judges are honest," said Supreme Court President Eloy Espinosa Saldana. "But there are others."
Defendants must also deal with powerful clerks who earn commissions based on how many pleadings and other documents they file, and thus have an incentive to see cases drag on.
The crisis in Peruvian justice has been building for decades, as Peru underwent rapid urbanization and an increase in crime that the system was not prepared to handle. But now, the overburdened justice system also has to contend with widespread political violence, drug trafficking and the desperation born of Peru's economic collapse.
Various attempts are underway to make things better, among them a U.S. Agency for International Development project to try to improve the way the courts manage their caseloads.
New Justice Minister Augusto Antoniolli has said the system is bad but "not in total crisis," and can be made to work more fairly and efficiently. Garcia-Sayan said he remembers similar enthusiasm from past ministers on taking office.
"After a while, they develop more of a minimalist strategy," he said. "If the prisoners are being fed once a day and aren't killing each other, they'll settle for that."