SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Four months after criminals took control over several prisons, causing a wave of violence in Ecuador, officers are being denounced for continually violating the inmates’ rights.

Prisoners who were released have described the situation inside the prisons as a “living hell,” with a lack of food, no medical or spiritual assistance, and frequent sessions of torture.

According to Giovanni Dutan, who has been working as a volunteer in the prison pastoral ministry in the city of Cuenca over the past 12 years, the missionaries are stopped from getting into the Turi penitentiary by the military – which now control the prisons – over the past few months.

“With two or three exceptions in March and April, when we were allowed to celebrate the Holy Mass at two prison blocks, we have not been allowed there all over that period for safety reasons,” Dutan told Crux.

Over the years, Dutan was able to draw hundreds of Catholic detainees to his pastoral work and even took images of Our Lady to the prison. Now, all those efforts were completely lost due to the military occupation.

“We haven’t had any real contact with the inmates since January. They’re not receiving spiritual assistance,” Dutan added.

A number of human rights organizations have been criticizing the situation, including Church activists like Dutan. But few people have concrete knowledge of what’s going on in the prisons, given that nobody can visit them.

“I’m sure people are being attacked there. That’s why we’re not allowed to get in,” Dutan said.

According to Spanish-born Father José Antonio Maeso, who has been living in Ecuador over the past 24 years and is the chaplain of the prison of Esmeraldas, many people leave the penitentiary system and go straight to the hospital in order to be treated for tuberculosis, chickenpox, skin infections, and other illnesses.

“That’s a strong sign that there are epidemics going on inside the prisons,” Maeso told Crux.

He said that many families told him that their detained relatives are starving, “something that weakens the health conditions of people who suffer from chronic diseases and may be causing deaths.”

“Many freed people describe the tortures that are happening in the prisons and say that some inmates are being killed,” Maeso added.

He has been prevented from visiting the Esmeraldas prison since January, when the militarization began.

Fernando Bastias, a lawyer of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDH) in Guayaquil, explained that the federal government has been failing to provide meals for the penitentiaries located in Ecuador’s penal system’s Zone 1 – which comprehends the north of the country – forcing the inmates’ families to take food to them.

“There’s no company hired by the State to do so. The detainees’ relatives try to take basic food items to them, but it’s impossible to meet the daily needs of up to 5,000 prisoners agglomerated in one penal facility,” he told Crux.

The CDH recently learned that the company hired to provide meals for the Zone 3 prisons in Guayas province may cancel the contract due to lack of payment by the government.

“So, detainees in Guayaquil and other cities will also remain without food,” Bastias said, adding that it’s a “deliberate government action to let the prisoners starve.”

Numerous former inmates also reported that the military agents stopped them from having adequate meals. Soldiers commonly throw the food on the floor and tell the convicts to eat it or give them only one minute to finish their meals, before shooting tear gas on them.

“They also give rotten food to them and force them to eat it,” Bastias claimed.

Condemnations of such practices, as well as other occurrences – including systemic torture – have been included in documents released by the CDH and by organizations like Human Rights Watch. President Daniel Noboa, who established a state of “domestic armed conflict” in Ecuador in January to combat the criminal gangs, has been continually failing to speak with civil society actors about the humanitarian crisis.

“The president sells the idea that such measures are necessary to struggle against crime,” Bastias said. According to him, Ecuadorian law doesn’t allow the Armed Forces to manage prisons, so since January the situation in the nation has been illegal.

“What’s worse is that any person or institution who tries to defend the rights of the people in prisons are accused of being anti patriotic. There’s a media and a government campaign to support such policies,” Maeso said.

He said that the seriousness of the situation should lead the Bishops’ Conference to give a stronger opposition to the current state of affairs.

“There have been meetings between the Church and the government, but it has never answered the bishops’ concerns regarding the prisoners’ human rights,” he said.

Noboa’s administration has been making an effort to demonstrate that repression will bring peace to Ecuador, the priest said.

“But that’s not true. Peace can’t emerge from violence. Only with social reconciliation will we have peace,” Maeso told Crux.