Who would have thought I’d leave Quito’s Penitentiary for Men with a string of purple plastic beads around my neck. But that’s what happened. I accompanied S. to visit her boyfriend, A. in prison and he quietly slipped the beads to me through the thick jail bars. I wasn’t sure what they were at first. He had bunched them up in his hand and all I saw was a tiny flicker of purple through his fingers. He held my hand for a moment as he squeezed the beads into it. He urged me to put the beads around my neck. Their shiny, gleaming surface, like Mardi Gras beads, were out of place in this grim, dark, setting. I was thankful for the beads, not just because they were a gesture of kindness and friendship, but because they gave me some solace as I found myself twisting them in my fingers for the entirety of the visit.
Nothing could have prepared me for my visit to the Quito’s Penitentiary for Men. Although I wasn’t surprised by its horrific conditions, (Ecuador is a poor country that lacks resources for social rehabilitation), coming face-to-face with the reality of prison life was deeply unsettling. The prison is located on the Avenue May 24th which used to be the main drag of the red-light district. Despite the city’s attempts to clean up the area it’s still a tough neighborhood, known for the ready availability of drugs. As we entered the prison, we had to give our “cedulas” (national identification cards) to the first guard and in return he gave us an ominous black stamp on the inside of our wrists. S. doesn’t have a cedula, which is illegal in Ecuador, and indeed when the police need an excuse to put a suspected robber in prison, or when S. or one of the other sex workers acts up against the cops, they often bring them into prison on charges of having possession of their “papers.” Apparently, S. doesn’t want to retrieve another copy of her cedula because it shows her marital status as married, which she is, even though she hasn’t seen her husband in years. (although I’m certain A. already knows this.) As a foreign resident, I also have a cedula and must also have in my possession. Anyway, the guard knew S. and let her pass without collecting her cedula, with the understanding that she would slip him a dollar on the way out. This wasn’t made clear to me until we entered the prison and since I was the one who would be providing the pay-off money (again, not made clear to me until we entered the prison) , and I only had a $10 bill, S. wasn’t able to comply with her side of the bargain. The guard didn’t seem to mind, even though we made a lame attempt to break the $10 in the neighborhood after exiting, but after several fruitless inquiries, S. said, “Fuck it, I’ll pay him double next time.”
All the visitors, the vast majority of whom were the girlfriends and wives of inmates, just like S., formed a line once we handed over our cedulas to be searched by the next guard. A woman security guard searched us, while the male visitors formed a different line to be searched by a man. The security guard quickly found my voice recorder and camera and swiftly placed them inside a drawer of her desk. I was nervous that I’d never see them again but she assured me that she would give them back (and indeed she did). For some reason she also put aside S.’s lip gloss. After giving us thorough pat downs, we entered the next room where the central cell was located. My first sensory experience as I entered was the sudden exposure to the screaming and yelling of the inmates. Throughout the visit it became a manageable din with the exception of punctures of shouting among the men. A. confirmed my suspicion that a lot of fights break out among the men, although he said if you keep to yourself no one will bother you. It was a large open cell, holding about two hundred men, most of them on their feet interacting with one another. When I asked A. where they slept, he pointed to concrete floor. No blankets, no mattresses, just the cold concrete. In the back of the cell I noticed a large communal bathroom, also open with no stalls. Some groups of men were huddled in the back of the cell, curled up next to one another sleeping. It’s a minimum security prison and they had all been arrested for similar crimes—petty theft, robbery, etc.
One sensed that there were different groups of alliances, like in any prison. These alliances seemed based on what region the inmates were from, which in turn, is based on race as Ecuadorians from the coast are often of African descent. But as it was visiting time, which only happens once a day, at 3:00pm, all the men were pushing their way to the front of the bars to find their girlfriends/wives. There was certainly no order or noticeable alliances between men at the front of the cell as they called to their partners. It’s the duty of the girlfriends to bring their boyfriends proper food from outside, as the prison food is inedible, as A. explained to me. Indeed, S., ever the loyal girlfriend, despite A.’s tendencies towards violence, brought him two bags of carry-out, with steaming soup and rice with meat and seafood. I was relieved to find out that during S.’s frequent lock-ups, A.’s brings her food everyday as well. It would be a grave disservice and tremendous act of disrespect if S. or A. did not bring food to one another—it is one of the main markers of their status as romantic partners. The food is simply passed through the prison bars which are wide enough to even fit a baby, which was passed through to her father with careless ease. (Upon entering the chaotic scene the baby immediately started crying, despite her father’s attempts to comfort her). In fact, I was surprised by how wide the bars were because if bags or food and babies could be slipped through, certainly drugs could also be passed through by the pounds. S. confirmed my suspicions as she opened a folded paper filled with marijuana and handed A. several generous finger-fulls. He collected it in his own open folded paper, ready for this exchange of drugs (to be continued...see next post)