Perhaps women’s prison is no walk in the park, but compared to the conditions of the men’s prison it’s like being in a playground. In fact, the maximum security prison does have a giant playground—authorities allow children up to age four to accompany their mothers for the majority of their sentence. In the past month I’ve visited both the minimum and maximum security prisons, visiting different sex workers from the street. Several Sundays ago, I was awakened by the shrill ringing of my cell phone in the early morning. It took me a moment to place the caller’s name and face together but then I recognized R., one of my favorite women from the street. She sounded worried and spoke in a voice so soft I could barely hear her. She said, “Anita can you please come to Inca (the maximum security prison), I need to see you immediately.” It occurred to me that that’s why I hadn’t seen R. for so long. I went to buy some food to bring and jumped in a cab northward.
When I tried to enter the prison, a massive concrete structure, walls laced with barbed wire, they searched me as usual and told me I couldn’t bring my cell phone inside. That surprised me since R. had definitely called me from a cell phone inside. I was stupid enough to try once again to enter with my cell phone, now hidden down my pants (as I’ve witnessed many of my friends do when we visit people). I quickly learned that I’m not quite a smooth as my friends and they confiscated it from me. I laughed it off, while they just sighed and ushered me in. R. was waiting for me near the front door. Once again, like the male prison, I was surprised by the lack of supervision inside. I couldn’t see any guards at all and the women roamed around as they wished. It was a massive structure and it was divided into many different sections, each filled with cells, but the first floor was basically entirely open. It almost seemed like a bus depot. There were stores with people selling things like toilet paper, toothpaste and other toiletries. Food stalls also existed, the rich smell of roasting pork and popcorn filled the air. Some women sold soft drinks and water. I came in with a group of nuns and when we entered the courtyard which had the playground I noticed all sorts of religious groups meeting with women in corners, whispering with bibles in hand.
Ironically, R. herself said she finally found my number because she had jotted it down in her Bible—that’s one of the only things they allow people to bring into prison with them. I was flattered that I had “made it” into her Bible, I thought it was reserved for information about family members. R., quickly shared her story, how she landed in the maximum security prison. She had been there over a month and her length of stay was still unknown. She explained to me that one night she went dancing at a club with her husband and son. Unknown to her, her husband had hid his gun in her purse after they entered when she went to the bathroom. When they left later that night, full of booze and drugs, her husband spotted someone on the street to rob. Suddenly, the police appeared out of nowhere and realized what was happening. Although R. thought she would be excused from the crime (because it was her husband who did it), when the police searched her and found the gun, she was hauled off to the police station with the rest of her family. R. was shaking with anger when she told me this. First, she was furious that her husband had dared to hide his gun in her purse and secondly, he hadn’t even bothered to tell her. Obviously, she was now charged as an accomplice and with possession of an illegal weapon. She was hauled off to the maximum security prison while her husband and son went to the men’s equivalent prison.
R. needed my help to get a lawyer. She also wanted me to contact the head of the sex worker organization to see if she had any contacts. But R’.s biggest fear concerned her son who is HIV positive and who no longer had access to his medication in prison. She wanted me to find an NGO that specialized in the rights of people with HIV and AIDS. It was well beyond my expertise but over the next few weeks I hustled to get R. as much information as I could. I brought her letters from different organizations, from a lawyer and the president of the sex worker organization. R. called me constantly to ask for more help. Unfortunately, most of her needs were impossible for me to fulfill. It made me wonder how HIV+ people in prison in the United States manage their medication. R.’s situation was incredibly complicated, especially since she was the target of a stupid act by her husband. Despite her resentment towards him, R. said she was glad she had possession of the gun because he would be locked away for much longer, given his prison record.
Soon enough, after I hadn’t heard from R. in a while (in fact, I was beginning to get worried), she appeared on the streets one day. It was our secret that she had been in prison for a month, the rest of the women thought she had gone to visit family on the coast. R. said she was ashamed to tell anyone because she hadn’t been to prison in years, and had never been in the maximum security prison. Although she had been released, R. still owed the prison money, for food and for the bed she rented every night. The $1 bed fee had added up given her five week stay.