Tag: Mexican prisons

My Friend as A Caged Animal

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.

Inside a Mexican Prison, Twice

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.