At the prison today, the first guards told me to leave my watch in the car and come back. I complied. As I understood it, someone might want it. That meant the other guards at the next gate. It didn’t seem plausible. I think he was just trying to be helpful. We showed our Mexican driver’s licenses, had them photographed onto “grocery receipts,” and turned to leave. “You may not be able to go in with those pockets,” said a guard wearing a helmet. I was wearing cargo pants. I slapped the pockets to show how the outside pockets could be handled. But I did smile and say, “Thanks for the warning.”
We walked across an open space that the builders had tried to make into a plaza, as pretty much all towns in Mexico have them, as if the prison were also a town. We entered the main doors. There I gave up my car keys and belt. No one mentioned my cargo pants. We stepped into our respective frisking booths, his and hers, male guard, female guard. Out the other side, we went down stairs and followed the familiar tunnel painted hospital green. At the wire cage, the guard fed out grocery receipt information into a computer, said some code words, and we climbed some stairs to the visiting area.
There was one prisoner visiting through the glass and bar wall with what looked like his mother or an aunt. He had to wait after she left. I suppose so that he and our friend wouldn’t pass each other. The visiting area guard opened her high security door and passed the mother a plastic shopping basket that I could tell was light by the way she held it. Empty plastic food containers, being given back so they could be refilled and brought back. The routine: bring in filled containers in one basket, take out empties in another.
We waited for some time for our friend. Who knows what we were interrupting: lunch, exercise and sleep. The present prisoner bowed his head, looking at the floor, chewing gum. What do you think about when you have to wait in a cage? How long will you be in that cage? Fifteen days or fifteen years? Our friend arrived and entered. The other prisoner passed by him, under the eyes of the guard and climbed stairs to an area higher up.
I went first. My friend is accused of [ ], possibly in an extortion attempt. Because of the snail-like pace of Mexico’s incorporated Napoleonic/Roman law, criminal and civil law, top-down law, he sits in prison until all the “evidence” is collected and pondered by a judge. There appears to be no right to a speedy trial, no right to a vigorous defense through cross-examination etc. Something like 30% to 50% of people in Mexican prisons have not seen a judge and don’t know if or when they will ever be released. More than 85% of those charged with a crime are sentenced, according to Mexico’s top think tank, the Center for Investigation and Development, or CIDE. Napoleonic Law does not hold that a prisoner is guilty till proven innocent. That apparently is an urban legend. I thank my friend Jürgen for bringing me up to date on that. So, the presumption of guilt and the many shades of it, is something Mexican.
My friend picked up the phone but, before talking, put his left hand up against the thick glass. I put my hand against the glass from my side. He did not look well. We had seen two of his daughters and his grandson in the parking lot. They warned us that he was feeling desperate. They said that, at a minimum, it would be another twenty days before he could leave—if a judge finds in his favor. He had already been held for three months. At that is the rub. Without accusatory, cross-examine challenge by defense lawyers, in an open court in front of a jury, all kinds of skullduggery or disaster can occur over the waiting period. By law passed in 2008, the old system was to change to be more like the U.S. system, with innocence presumed from the start. But the change has been moving slowly. Thirty-one more Mexican states have yet to enact it. And actual practice may lag long after enactment.
He looked haggard. We talked about this and that. I said we had heard he was desperate. His eyes soften as he nodded. Later, he cried during D’s turn. She led him in a breathing exercise, the two of them crying softly. I had told him to redouble his physical exercise. I think he could not really let it all out in front of another man, especially in front of a man who was on the outside. He talked about liberty, and that that was what was the most precious thing in life. He said something about twenty years. I let it slide. I didn’t want to speculate with him that he might remain caged for that length of time. I believe it was a pessimist speaking, not a guilty man. We both knew that Napoleonic law is open to corruption, error and incompetence.
When it was D’s turn, the guard wasn’t in her office. She couldn’t go to the visiting window and telephones without the guard’s permission. I held up my thumb and forefinger, as if I held an invisible centavo (penny) between them. It meant, in Mexico, that it would be a minute or so before D could visit. He got up and began pacing back and forth along the row of seats and telephones on his side of the barrier. Like a caged zoo animal.
While he and D visited, two women came in. They dropped off baskets of food with the guard. There are about ten chairs for visitors to sit in while they wait their turn to visit. One of the two women sat down right beside me. That is not what happens outside. The other woman sat on the other side of her. I do not understand this readiness to sit right next to another visitor, an older gringo, a stranger, a man. But it has something to do with the need for closeness in the context of the Inside, with the assumption that we are in this together. I don’t think we even exchanged Buenas Tardes. So that too was different.
The other woman got up, the guard opened the door and handed her a shopping bag of empty food containers. Along with two framed pictures portrait-sized, one of which held as many as twelve photos of the same very young girl, presumable the prisoner’s daughter. The other, as I remember, a country landscape, perhaps from their village. I do not know why he had to give them up. Perhaps he had never got them.
Back at the guard station where I had left the car keys and my belt, in front of a woman of modest means, a guard was stirring a wooden spatula around in a plastic container of soup, looking for contraband or weapons. The woman did not look happy. How many times had she gone through that? And how many times would she again? There were several women, all poor, waiting to have each one of their containers probed.