When I’m about to have a new Mexican experience, in this case visit a friend inside a Mexican prison, I like to write about it as if the event has already taken place. This way I can explore my frame of mind before the fact.
I write in the voice of my friend.
“I was seized and put in prison for [ ]. With some pain, I stand most of the day at the door of my cell, looking across at my neighbors. One of them, they say, carried bales of marijuana in the back of his pickup from one dusty village to another, when two young horses bolted in front of him and, even at low speed, got their legs broken and had to be shot. The police came and detained the truck as evidence. When they later came to the driver’s house, they said they had found a package of the illegal herb. He said he didn’t know that hay was illegal. I say he deserved to be in prison for stupidity alone. He also never caught on that the police had taken the whole load for their own purposes, except for the one little package. Later, he received a warning: Say where the marijuana is or pay the consequences. Yesterday, while in line to enter his cell, someone stabbed him in the kidney and he died quickly.
I have to turn around every so often. There are five other men in my part of this tomb, and I have already been raped by two of them, while the other three held me down.
I would kill myself if I had a weapon. After I had put a bullet in each of my five roommates. On the other hand, maybe not. I understand their thinking—a vigilante justice, even if it was delivered through an unjust act.
They give us pills. Mine are small and pink. They lower the stress, but not the fear. When I whispered news of their crime against me, the guard said I needed to smell the shit I had left around me, and that he would slit my throat if I ever came near his family.
The pill makes it hard to link ideas, remember facts, remember anything at all about my alleged crime. I’ve just received my morning pill. I have been spitting them into the toilet for a week now. That is because I need to remember.
The American and his wife came to visit today. I knew they would avoid mentioning the charges against me. It’s better that way. It’s too complicated, there’s too much uncertainty. But the charge was still there, floating in the thick glass between us. Here’s the context. We hold the old phones and look at each other. I am bad, they are good. I appreciate them coming, but they cannot help, cannot lift the shame or save me from my roommates. I think they could see some of my pain and hopelessness. We joked as we always do. Hadn’t I paid my telephone bill? he asked. No, nor the water bill, I replied. I am glad they came and hope they will come again. Though I may not be here. If I remember something and see that I am guilty, I may take action. The only question is what action that will be—if the state wants to take my freedom away from me forever.”
This is what actually happened when we visited the prison.
In the parking lot, we left our valuables under the mad collection of things we keep behind the back seat of our car. We hid cell phones, house keys, credit cards, pepper spray and a jackknife. We approached the first gate—a small building, part of the main fence. Just inside the door, on the left, there was a counter, and a young guard standing behind it. Cordial greetings all around. He was friendly and professional, without attitude. As we had been advised, we present our Mexican driver’s licenses. He asks if we had knives, cell phones, any kind of weapon. We said we didn’t. He pointed at D’s black pedal pushers. He said shorts we not allowed. D. said she didn’t think they were shorts. Plus, they’re black, he said. Only guards wear black. Still, he said she might get through the next gate. Across from the counter there was a window, with a woman officer seated behind it. We stepped up to it and presented our driver’s licenses. The woman entered something into a computer. She held up a wand with what looked like an eyeball taped to the top of it and took a photo of each of us through the glass. A kind of grocery store receipt came out of the computer, twice, with our photos on our respective receipts. With those pieces of paper and our licenses, we crossed an open area and entered the main prison entrance.
At something like a wardrobe counter in a museum we gave up D’s car keys, my belt, and one other not too dangerous item, which I’ve forgotten. I stepped into little room marked “H” for Hombres, D. into one marked “M” for Mujeres. An agreeable guard frisked me. He seemed to concentrate on the top of my shoulders and my upper back. He never went down my pant legs. Out of the blue, he asked me how Mexico is treating me. Not anticipating something other than an instruction, I asked him to repeat what he had asked.
“How is Mexico treating you?”
I said I loved Mexico—which I do. He liked that.
I walked out the exit door of the frisking booth. They pointed us to stairs leading below ground. At the bottom, we walked along an underground passageway to where we could see a heavily guarded control booth in front of us. But our way was blocked by floor to ceiling bars. We had to turn right, walk thirty feet along the bars, slip through a narrow opening, then walk back along the bars until we were at the guard booth again.
There was a small square opening a little higher than head level. One at a time, we passed our driver’s licenses and grocery store receipts with photo through the opening. We were allowed to proceed. We climbed stairs and came out in the visiting area, rooms separated by thick glass and bars. A female officer took our passes and licenses through a slit below the glass that enclosed her and placed a call to summon the interno, the prisoner, the friend we were going to visit. She told us to take a seat in a line of chairs against a glass wall. It would be a minute or two.
A middle-aged woman climbed the stairs, showed her pass and sat down beside us. Our friend came through a door, saw us through the glass, beamed and waved.
I went first. A wall of bars slid to one side, just enough so that I could slip through and sit down in front of my friend, separated by thick glass and bars. He picked up his phone. I picked up mine.
“You didn’t pay your rent?” I asked.
He laughed. There was some initial embarrassment on his part and his face flushed a little.
I ask him how he was. He wore a neat khaki uniform, hair and moustache neatly trimmed. Good, he said. In fact, he looked the best I had ever seen him. His eyes were clear, he was slimmer and his color was good. I saw no sign of stress. I asked about his health. He said when he mentioned being a diabetic, they had given him a special diet, and the food was good. I asked him about his safety. No, none of that, he said. You show respect to the people around you, and you’re treated well. He said he was learning guitar, going to various classes, there were weights and a walking area. He had friends. He was in fact the picture of a happy man leading a well-ordered life.
He said he didn’t think he’s going to be in the place very long and that the matter would be cleared up. He said he had not one but two lawyers.
Some of his problem, I realized has to do with legislated changes that have not yet taken place. In practice, the law is still Napoleonic Law. You are guilty until proven innocent. Plus everything moves very slowly.
After something like five or seven minutes, the guard cut the phone and we could no longer hear each other. Continued contact requires some gesture. He put his hand against the glass, I place mine against his. Then my other hand, then his too. It is a curious moment, two men showing closeness and loyalty through thick glass and bars.
Then he visited with D. While I was waiting, several women arrived with shopping baskets packed with full food containers. Matter-of-factly, each time the guard got up and opened her door and took the basket of food and placed it carefully against the wall behind her chair—in common understanding that families should maintain contact, especially through food.
Though there was a choice in the line of waiting area chairs, the women sat down close to me—as if there was a common bond—waiting for their turn to visit.
I wondered how the food was handled. Did they search each container for a pistol? Did the men share the food with each other? How often did the women bring food? Why the drop in security? The guard seemed part of a larger family, opening her high security door and taking the food baskets to hand them on to the prisoners after their loved ones had left.