- The Criminals of Lima and their Worlds: The Prison Experience, 1850-1935
In this superbly researched and written book, Carlos Aguirre initiates the reader into the fascinating details of the penal and criminal world of Lima, a world that had to negotiate the tension between an "authoritarian and exclusionary" modernization process and a continuation of "traditional forms of social domination" (p. 217). The state's inability to implement true prison reform, because of lack of funds and personnel, and the challenges posed by inmates skillful at negotiating and resisting regulations, formed part of the modern/traditional tension. As background, Aguirre examines the development of the criminal question in Peru, looking at the growth of scientific criminology and the making of a criminal class, whose incarceration and ability to work benefited the modernizing state. The author then turns to Lima's various penal institutions and the prison population, pointing out how new penal facilities coexisted with a "network of private, informal, and illegal forms of punishment" (p. 88).
In the last three chapters, Aguirre looks at daily life in prisons, how it conformed to official rules that were then transformed by inmates. Some of the most interesting material in this book is in these chapters. For example, prisoners were allowed to install booths in the main prison yard, where they traded a variety of commodities like cigarettes, clothes, and coca in a sort of "European fair" (p. 148). Inmates also organized sports clubs and called prison authorities padrinos. Rewards for good behavior included more time to read, less work, permission to cultivate plants for sale, consume tobacco and coca, and the right to send letters to relatives and receive visitors. Aguirre's research reveals a population that was surprisingly involved in contemporary Peruvian society, one that reflected the full diversity of political and social life. For example, on one occasion inmates organized a reception for President Leguía on his birthday and on another, congratulated him for the resolution of a conflict with Chile. Letters written by prisoners in the late 1920s showed a change from a strictly individualistic to a collective approach in the pursuit of inmates' goals.
Aguirre's work contributes not only to our understanding of the Peruvian situation, but also provides an invaluable comparative perspective. For example, Aguirre points out that in contrast to Europe and Latin American countries such as Argentina, in Peru the "confluence of discontented workers and volatile criminal groups [was] largely absent in the perception of social commentators" (p. 60). "The so-called social question—the explosive combination of poverty, unemployment, low salaries, crime, strikes, and working-class agitation" (p. 61) did not have the same dimensions in Peru. The fact that crime was considered to be due to "deficient moral restraint," rather than to a "collective social breakdown," meant that authorities were able to disassociate crime from an exploitative economy (p. 61). Aguirre argues that this separation of criminals and workers "was not only a strategic political/discursive construction from above . . . but also a product of the evolution in workers' own forms of social identity and consciousness" (p .61). [End Page 299]
Throughout this book, the author writes with a marked sensitivity for Lima's prison population. He concludes with a discussion of a unique series of colored drawings done by an inmate at El Frontón in 1932. The drawings show the abuse, arbitrariness, and suffering in places of incarceration, as well as what the author calls "the customary order." The latter, he argues, distinguished Lima's prisons and helped inmates overcome some oppressive elements, and revealed the "porosity and ambiguities of state-imposed mechanisms of social control" (pp. 215-16). The drawings often "invite the viewer to laugh," but readers of The Criminals of Lima and their Worlds will do so with a much greater understanding of and empathy for Lima's prison populations gained from Aguirre's research.