Returning from the coast I had a couple of days to spare in Quito before heading up to Colombia. Having spent a few weeks in the place, I woke up after a rather heavy night and was looking to do something a little different. As in many city hostels in this part of the world, pinned to the notice board were letters from foreigners incarcerated in local jails, in this case Garcia Moreno prison, inviting people to drop in, drop off some essentials and help alleviate their boredom. Naturally, many travellers feel sympathetic with the guys behind bars, knowing all too well that with a touch of misfortune they could suffer similar misfortune. Dave, Jez, Mike and I decided to take up the invitation, jumped in a taxi and asked the driver to take us to Garcia Moreno. It was to prove to be an educational experience.
We rocked up at the bottom of a steep road with what looked very much like a prison domineering the block up and to the right. High brick walls topped with barbed wire, small windows barred off. We walked up the road and joined the small queue waiting to enter the prison. Guards armed with automatic weapons informed us that we were not allowed to take anything and I mean anything in. The first sign of what we were getting ourselves into. Against our better judgement we had to deposit our wallets, ID, watches etc. More worryingly, we were told that we would not be allowed in with shorts. As far as I could translate the reason for this was something to do with shorts being ripped off and a weapon shoved in to places the sun does not shine. I could only understand a small amount of what the guard was saying, but he left little to the imagination, acting out a scenario best avoided. So, wearing trousers, Jez and Dave went into the prison while Mike and I considered our situation. Mike, sensibly as it panned out, decided to quit while not behind. I convinced a guy in a shop opposite to swap his trousers for my shorts, changed in the street and headed into the prison on my tod.
Cheering times in an Ecuadorian prison
After a full-over search and multiple stamps being applied on my arms, I was allowed through the gate and into the half way house between the inmates and their jailors. What ensued was circa 20 minutes of confusion as we asked to see the English guy from Manchester who had written one of the letters posted on the notice board of the hostel. The surprisingly helpful guards clearly racked their brains and asked around the prison, but did not come up with any immediate plan of action. After some time they took us on a small tour of the near side of the prison, perhaps to buy time. We were taken around the small workshop and up to the next set of gates to the main prison yard. What we saw through those bars made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle. This was no cosy jail in Britain. Eventually, after some more waiting and a few looks between us of “Are we sure this is a good idea?”, the guards brought in front of us a small slightly shy looking Ghanaian called Dominic. Fortunately he spoke reasonable English, presumably why the guards had chosen him to converse with us. He fudged his answer as to whether he knew this bloke from Manchester, but seemed pleasant and, after giving him some ciggies, we half asked and half were invited into the prison proper. The gate was opened, we walked into the yard and before we knew it the guards had locked the gates behind us. This was not part of the plan. A guard escort had definitely been part of the plan.
Some explanation is needed of our new surroundings. Cloisters around the sides were chocked full of inmates, with cells lining the walls and a volleyball court in the centre. Next to the court at the far end is a raised platform where, by what I understood from Dominic’s warning, some seriously dodgy characters were hanging – large Latino bros doing their best to look HARD and glaring at us. Above is another cloister with more people looking over. The place is absolutely packed but only when we found ourselves in one of the cells did we understand the full extent of it.
So, we had been locked into this prison yard full of not the most savoury characters and instead of a guard escort we had Dominic and a couple of his mates. I have to say my heart froze as I went shaking hands with the slightly over touchy mass of people who converged on us as we were led away to the far side of the yard.
As we made our way to the far corner – that is as far as is possible from any guards – we were surrounded by a group of rather large guys of African descent. We chatted for a bit with them, seriously wary of our surroundings and what in the hell we had got ourselves into. With shouting from all around and more dodgy looks focused pointedly in our direction, Dave aptly described the scene as a cross between Football Factory and American History X. I was walking at the front with Dominic when he invited me into to his oh so not enticing cell. After failing to tactfully turn him down, I did my best to stall him as there was no way in hell I was going anywhere without the I feared not so protective company of Dave and Jez, who were a few steps behind being mobbed for cigarettes. When we reached the cell there was little option but to go in and, to our horror, one of the prisoners locked the door behind us. Just one of those scenarios. Locked down by inmates in a South American jail. Certainly living up to be that something different I had been looking for when I woke up that morning.
The cell was perhaps 3 meters by 5, with, we were to find out, approximately 30 inhabitants. Packed bunks lined the walls. Behind a dirty sheet, a young girl from the queue outside and a prisoner were making noisy use of the brief visiting hours. Apparently the girls were mostly prostitutes and this was a weekly occurrence. We sat down on two of the other bunks, tried to keep calm and chatted to our inprisoners. I will never forget the priceless look on Jez’s face when, on asking one of the guys what he was in for, he received the reply “rape and murder”. Yup, one after another the guys told us they were in for rape, murder and/or large scale drug trafficking. The latter being the most common.
Some music was put on, we passed our ciggies around and general small chat ensued. To our relief they were nice guys and we got on well. Despite what a mate later said, I do not believe this was a case of Stockholm Syndrome. I spent a decent amount time chatting to an Antiguan about the depressing state of West Indian cricket. They even offered me a joint to which the obvious answer in a Quito jail was no thanks. Not a place to get high.
This was not what we expected when we acted on the invitation on the hostel wall! It transpired that instead of taking us to the Garcia Moreno prison, the taxi driver had taken us to the prison ON calle de Garcia Moreno – CARCIA NUMERO 2. Yup, the idiotic gringos that we were had, instead of ending up in a prison where the foreigners pay more for smaller, even private, rooms with TV and DVD player, ended up at the most notorious jail in Quito reserved for murderers, rapists and hard-core drug traffickers from countries without powerful embassies. 800 prisoners crammed into 26 rooms in a two storey rectangle around an area no bigger than a couple of volleyball courts.
We had had more than an inkling that something was very off, but the fact that this was so definitely the wrong prison solidly struck home when I was told that the only Europeans visitors were a couple of Germans who came, at best, once a month from Amnesty.
The conditions for the prisoners were horrendous and they were more than keen to share their thoughts. The place was filthy, the food was apparently disgusting, violence and murder rife (we were told people were at that moment writing down names to get them after the visiting hour) and for sure not a place you would ever want to find yourself. Add to this the inmates comments about a justice system where if you go to court you are guilty, only serve full sentences (no cutting for good behaviour) and increased sentences are the consequence of any appeal (a pretty standard 8 years for drug-trafficking would become 12 on appeal) and the depressing nature of the place takes hold. The strange thing is that despite this, none of the guys we met claimed their innocence, but instead seemed pissed off at the informant culture of Ecuador (the constant comment of “this is a fucked up country – people talk to much”) and wished they were in prison elsewhere, even in Columbia.
Exit stamps for an Ecuadorian prison
As the end of visiting hours loomed, I hinted we should be off. The guys in the cell wished us hearty goodbyes and thanked us for visiting. I felt sorry for them having to serve years in this hell. As we left the cell and re-entered the packed yard, it became obvious that the guys were being straight when they told us they had locked us in for our own protection. They had been sheltering us from what lay behind all those dodgy looks and now preceded to form a body guard all round us and escort us back through the crowds to the gate. Some more goodbyes and a high five or two and, after checking our stamped forearms, the guards let us through the gate and we stumbled out the exit with a minute or so of visiting hour to go.
The same guard who had let us in, now informed us that the place was muy peligroso (very dangerous) and we should not have gone in. Helpful advice after the event! A thought provoking and worthwhile experience, but do not get me wrong, if I had known what it entailed I would never have gone near the place. Ecuador has some very dark sides and I have a lot of sympathy for the inmates we met, embroiled in the state’s abuse.
On to Colombia…
More by James Sinclair on his blog.
Copyright © 2011 James Sinclair