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Backpackers Behind Bars – A Morning In Quito Prison

Hard core South American jail or holiday camp? Maybe somewhere in between…

“Murder, drugs…he´s murder, he´s a gang leader. Drugs, he’s drugs, that guy at the end – he´s off his face now – he was a mule……all the gringos are drugs.”

I was sat in the courtyard of Block C, Quito Prison eating a healthy-tasting three course lunch prepared by Vlady, a Belarusian inmate and friend of Jack, my guide for the day, himself two years into a twelve year sentence for drug smuggling. For my benefit, Jack reeled off the crimes of the rest of the guys in the yard. It was visiting day, and I watched as two Ecuadorian drugs mules play-fought with Emmy, the two year old son of Emilio. A smuggler from Como with eight years left, Emilio looked on contently and chatted with his Ecuadorian wife.

Getting in was easy. More and more travellers are visiting the prison. A guy I met in the hostel gave me Jack’s details and some instructions. Outside I passed rows of stalls selling pre-packed bunches of fruit, before joining the queue of girlfriends, parents, lawyers and hookers. A quick search, a glance at my passport and I was past security; the only thing distinguishing me from the 13,000 inmates was a logo stamped on my arm like you get in nightclubs (I looked at my arm. The ink didn’t seem like it would rub off too easily).

Edging down the corridor towards the main artery of the prison, I felt pretty ill at ease – there were wires poking out from both walls and a faint smell of vomit. Soon I was approached by a group of men so skinny they looked malnourished. I couldn’t make out much of their Spanish, but it seemed they were offering to take me to Jack´s cell so I followed them. They wanted money. I gave them what coins I had.

Jack lives in a cell about the size of a student room in halls, in a three-storey wing boasting a couple of pool tables, a few restaurants, a bakery and an ice-cream stall. He bought his cell ($2200), and employed other prisoners to help kit it out. Thanks to a Lithuanian electrician and a Colombian handyman the whole cell was tiled, there was a bathroom, shower, small kitchen, fridge, bookcase, TV and DVD player. Before we started talking we watched a few points of the French open on ESPN. Unlike the guys who brought me to his room, Jack has got money (Western Union to a woman outside who brings it in for a small fee), and contacts who bring him things from outside. His phone rang several times while he discussed his story – his girlfriend back home, a lawyer in London and even a mate organising an upcoming visit. Jack´s paying for the flights.

It turned out this wasn’t Jack’s first experience behind bars – he’d spent a couple of years in a British prison. An archaeology graduate of a red-brick university with 4 A-levels, his explanation of his situation was both eloquent and entertaining, if a little unstructured.

“I was bang to rights and should have got 25, but my lawyer paid the court secretary to take out the bad bits from the case. 12 is a result, really.”

“This is a holiday compared to a British nick. They check if I’m here at ten, and then I’ve got the day to myself. If I get deported, with my history, I’m fucked.”

Phone calls from Europe were not the only interruption to our conversation – several other inmates dropped by to say hello: a Hungarian wanting to borrow a DVD, a Dutch drugs mule who ¨needed the cash¨ and Rodney and Michael, two Londoners in their sixties.

Jack continued: “Didn’t you see me on that programme in Britain, about prisoners abroad? I was famous for a while.”

“I reckon I’ve shagged about ten travellers. I’ve got a girlfriend now, from Manchester – she came to visit me like you and we hit it off.” When she calls a few moments later, Jack insists that I say hello, as if wanting to prove her existence.

I was taken to meet Juan, a Spanish gypsy. Being inside hadn’t stopped Juan from becoming a father during the past year. Twice, in fact, with two different women.

Loud music was coming from his cell, and venturing inside it was decorated up like a disco, with black floor, mirrors on the wall and a strobe. There was cocaine on the table, a guy who offering cheap flights to anywhere in the world (I took his number), some bloke who could barely stand up and a number of prostitutes inside. Juan poured me a whisky and coke. It was about 11 in the morning.

“The atmosphere in here is much better than in Britain. It´s because we have visitors three times a week and on Saturdays, wives or whoever can stay in your cell.” said Jack. “A prostitute costs $10 a night. $5-8 for a Peruvian.”

We strolled downstairs, past a few curious stares and a couple of pool tables, to the courtyard, where the prison’s informal marketplace was just getting going. Stools run by prisoners were selling mobile phone accessories, toiletries and food. One Ecuadorian inmate explained how he gets ingredients brought in by his family and earns money baking cakes or cooking meals.

Crime committed or assessed risk to others has no bearing on where inmates reside, but bank-balance and passport do. Block-C is for richer prisoners or Europeans so the atmosphere is a bit easier, and the range of cuisine wider.

As we supped hot Russian stew, Michael explained the moment in Quito airport when dogs discovered the 8 kilos of Cocaine strapped to his midriff. Unlike the others, he wants to go back to Britain to finish his sentence as they might take more account of his age. He had a calm and content manner, and looked a bit like Tony Hart. Take my number. Next time you come, let me know and I´ll bake you some apple pies. Or rhubarb.

Not Always So Cozy Inside

Raymond had a pony tail, looked a bit like a pedophile and was altogether a less appealing character. He boasted of the hypothetical length of his sentence If the police knew half of what I’d done in my life and refused vehemently to speak a word of Spanish because I’m English….and they’re all cunts. Then he shouted cough mixture loudly at the guy who gets medicine and stuff and was ignored repeatedly.

So far so good. But as we ate and chatted it became clear life inside was not always the Hispanic Butlins it, sort of, resembled.

If prisoners don’t have money they hardly eat and have to sleep on the hard floor of the communal areas. The two other wings, for natives or Colombians, are pretty sketchy according to Jack, and appeared massively overcrowded. It emerged that violence was more common than the familial atmosphere suggested.

A skinny guy from Guatemala who looked barely 16 strolled past, arm in arm with a girl. “He pulled a knife on me last week,” admitted Jack.

“The thing is it’s different here. In Britain, if you get in a fight, it´s a fist fight. For sure. Worst case, a toothbrush or maybe hot oil. Here, you’re pretty much dead. Everyone’s got a machete. Or a gun.”

“Last week I was in my cell with these two British guys. One was a journalist from a well known glossy magazine. We were all coked up, in fact. Suddenly there’s this noise. Turns out someone threw a gun into the solitary area. Two guys were shot, one died. The guy who did it, they added six months to his sentence. Doesn’t sound like much. But they beat him up too.”

“A year or so ago, a Colombian was shot in the Ecuadorian wing. So Colombians went and killed two Ecuadorians. Then they called a truce.”

Some superficial internet research revealed that in 2004, inmates took over the prison. The army was sent in amid a lot of bloodshed. Just as I was bringing this up Jack pointed out some deep red stains on the floor across the yard, “That´s new.”

Casually, it was mentioned that 12 till 1 was lunchtime for the guards, so we’d have to wait to leave. I looked around – sure enough there was no sign of any staff. “There’s a guy up there with a machine gun, though. He stays,” explained Jack.

I wondered whether it was best practice for a prison to have a shared lunch hour for all the guards. I also considered the value of a relatively wealthy foreigner held hostage in a cell. At the very least, it would be a bit of fun for people with next to no hope, and little incentive to behave.

I took momentary consolation in the fact that, should a riot occur, at least some order would be preserved thanks to the stern messages aimed at the prisoners and posted by the entrance: Respect families on visiting day and Don’t use bad language in front of women.

As we made our way to the exit, having exchanged contact details, it struck me that allowing young children, women and naive backpackers loose amongst rapists, murderers and guerrilla fighters for the day was a little lax. Perhaps even an accident waiting to happen, especially given the guards’ sociable timetable.

As the recently refreshed warden accepted my stamp and the doors closed behind me I made a mental note to ensure nobody went near my bags when next at the airport – especially on this continent. It had been an interesting morning, but there’s no denying it; walking free from prison feels good however long you’ve been inside.

Felix Hill

Felix comes from the south of England, perhaps the world’s least friendly place. He deleted his entire memory in a meditation accident, but has been re-learning his past word by word from his Facebook profile.