(continued...) Indeed, I was shocked to see that there was absolutely no supervision of the men in the cell, nor was there a security guard posted directly outside the cell to supervise the visits. Perhaps it’s due to under-staffing or simply apathy—the steel bars themselves provided the only control or order between inside and outside the cell. It truly shocked me that one could blatantly pass drugs through the bars. And judging by the behavior of some of the inmates—men who simply seemed out of their minds, either pacing or running back and forth in the cell or screaming in the corner, were most likely under the influence of copious amounts of whatever…. Obviously being in prison was not a chance to detox for a few days. Without a doubt, addicts would be able to prevent the onset of any withdrawal symptoms with the ridiculously easy process of “smuggling in” drugs from the outside. I can’t even label it “smuggling,” I’d just say the overt handing over of goods, with the same nonchalance of passing steaming plastic containers of rice through the bars. In contrast to the smuggling of drugs into prisons in the U.S., the paying off of guards was clearly completely unnecessary.
The couples reached for each other through the bars, holding hands tightly while whispering to one another. They could even nuzzle noses and just barely kiss. A. and S. were no different, as they caught up on the day’s events. Mostly A. was worried about S.’s drinking and asked me to confirm S.’s insistence that no, she hadn’t been drinking while he was in prison. Truthfully, I could neither confirm nor deny her drinking, but for S.’s sake I obviously “got her back” and also insisted on her sobriety. Afterward S. told me that A. was particularly obsessed with her drinking because she is more likely to cheat on him under the influence of alcohol than any other drug. Interestingly though, A. does not consider S. turning tricks as cheating, although when he is out of prison he is the “breadwinner” as a robber. When he’s out of prison he does not allow S. to prostitute because he feels it is his duty to provide for them (and probably because he doesn’t like her sleeping with other men, as one might expect) and by robbing a cell phone daily, he can easily cover their drug habit and nightly hotel fee. They both smoke base, which although is not crack, closely approximates it. They also smoke “polvo” or “dust” and I’m still not sure of the difference between “base” and “polvo.” A. uses more than S. although they both seem at early stages of addiction because they still go several days without using. A marked difference exists between their usage and some of the other couples who are clearly more strung out. These other couples have developed the gaunt faces and darting eyes of down-and-out junkies—indeed I was very surprised to learn about A.’s habit because he is still so healthy looking.
Our visit with A. only lasted about 15 minutes, because there were too many other women trying to push through to see their boyfriends. S. knew many of the other women. A. slipped a paper with a phone number to S., someone she had to call for him. A. was only serving a four day sentence for not having his papers—again, it was the excuse the police used when they did their routine search of him—apparently, as they searched him, A. started mouthing off to the cops and ended up hitting one of them. The police continually imprison certain people on the streets they have labeled as “bad,” they throw them in prison despite the fact that they may not have committed a crime at that moment. A. and S. are both routinely targeted and imprisoned by the police because of their “poor conduct” and “bad attitudes.” Quite frankly, I don’t blame them. I also have a fiery personality, and I know I would blow up and mouth off to the cops too if they stopped to search me all the time. For better or for worse, I know I would be like S. on the streets, always getting into trouble.
I could tell A. was deeply touched by my visit, although he was concerned that it was too overwhelming for me. He said, “Anita, you shouldn’t have come here, to such an ugly place, you shouldn’t see this place.” I wanted to see what prison in Ecuador is like, but he was right, I felt unexpectedly overwhelmed. In fact, I felt downright scared and was relieved that there were thick bars between me and the inmates. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge them simply because they’re in prison or by the hardness of their faces, marked with scars, but they aren’t the type of guys I’d want to meet in a random alley. I admit that they scared me, even more so because many of them were fascinated that I was a gringa visiting, admittedly a strange sight. Some called out to me and A. had to tell them to shut up.
Perhaps A. is no saint, but he’s a good man in many ways. Indeed, I went to visit him because I consider him a friend on the streets. Perhaps it’s a platitude to point out, but people are complex mixes of “good” and “bad.” Perhaps I’m simply naïve, but I truly believe that no one is completely bad. I’m reminded of this when I experience the fierce loyalty of people like A. on the streets. He often says to me with total sincerity that if anyone ever touches me he will kill them. Unfortunately, I believe him. The last thing I want is my mugging to be the cause of a violent crime, but I take comfort in the fact that A., one of the toughest guys on the street, has truly “got my back.” I’m not sure what I did to “be down” with him, but now that I am, it has its advantages. I feel safer on the streets with him around. More than once he has warned me of “bad” guys in the area who don’t know me—who don’t know that I’m one of the untouchables on the corner and has herded me into a nearby store.
I was equally touched by his present of the purple plastic beads. I barely know him, but he considers me a good friend, which to me means that that are very few people he can trust in life. That realization left me teary-eyed. I left the prison, stepping out into a grey drizzle, still gripping the purple beads around my neck, lost in thought about these complex relationships I’ve formed in the streets. It took me hours for me to process the visit (actually, I’m still processing it) and to shake off the chills I felt by witnessing such chaos and perhaps by feeling such danger so close to me.