I’ve always been a bit undecided on the idea of prison visits when travelling. I’ve met tons of people who were wide-eyed with glee at the prospect of visiting a random Brit or two in Bangkok prison, and I found myself wondering whom the visit was meant to benefit. It came across as either gawking at somebody as though they were an animal in a zoo, or as a saintly gesture that would keep the visitor feeling good about him or herself for the rest of the trip. Neither idea sat comfortably with me, and further, I found myself wondering how I would feel if I was in prison: would I welcome the break from the routine, with someone new to talk to, or would I resent these eager people, bursting uninvited into my life and demanding to know all about the circumstances that landed me in prison in the first place? Seriously, I’ve given this thought.
On the other hand, I’ve come across the staggeringly heartless view that people in foreign prisons don’t deserve visits; that “they should serve their sentence without pity” (that’s a quote from someone on Thorn Tree – I’ll leave out the name). Well, I think that’s a little strong. The sex offenders, sure; I was right up there with the rest of the world in being nauseated by Gary Glitter. But the majority of Brits, Aussies, Americans, Europeans and so forth in third-world prisons are there for drug-related offences, and is that really on the same level? (Attack me in the comments for that, by all means.) Is the extreme stupidity and greed that prompts the offence in the first place deserving of the appalling conditions and vast lengths of time in these prisons? Maybe so, it’s certainly a deterrent, but I still think a visit or two made out of compassion isn’t completely ridiculous.
So it was with all this weighing up going on in my head that I decided to visit a Brit in the Garcia Moreno prison, Quito. My doubts at how well I would be received were assuaged by a call to the British Embassy in Quito: I asked for the names of any Brits currently being held, and the lady on the other end answered, “Well, we’re not really allowed to give out that information, because we have to check first if they want visitors… But this guy is always okay with visits.” I felt a bit better about it, and I stocked up on the usual gifts of chocolate, cigarettes and toiletries.
Visiting hours at Garcia Moreno prison are Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 9am-12pm and 1pm-3pm. We rocked up at about five to nine. And I was, innocent and naïve as I am, astonished at the scene before us. There were quite literally hundreds of people clustered around the gates and forming vague queues. Everyone was carrying gigantic bags of fruit, vegetables and even meat, and I immediately felt bad for not bringing more. There were people of all ages, right down to little babies in arms and five-year olds shrieking happily as they chased each other around the streets in front of the ominous and imposing gates, to which they were completely oblivious. Yup, this is a proper family day out, visiting friends and relatives in the prison and ensuring that they are properly fed and not forgotten.
Getting into Garcia Moreno prison is quite a complicated process. I knew you weren’t allowed phones, cameras and belts, but apparently the list is not limited to that. It also includes sunglasses, lipgloss (lipgloss, for heaven’s sake. What am I going to do with that, beautify someone to death? If anyone knows the objection to lipgloss I’d be interested to hear it) and alcohol. That last one sounds like it might be obvious, but I was going with the assumption that since it’s legal it might be overlooked. To be frank, I only bought it because I thought it might be useful to persuade a guard to let me take my camera in, but in practice, that just wasn’t feasible. There are about four bag and body searches – I couldn’t give all of them rum.
Throughout the lengthy searching and groping process, we received a series of stamps up the right arm to show we were only visitors and had no desire to stay forever. You also give over your passports as you enter, which is probably a sensible thing. Finally, an hour and a half after we had arrived, we were in. And, as I expected, we were at once surrounded by a few dozen prisoners wanting to help, to take us to whoever we wanted to see, to show us the way, for solo un dolarito. It was a bit like going to the kind of massive tourist attraction in which you immediately get swamped by people selling you things and refusing to leave you alone until you’ve bought something. And, like that sort of instance, the easiest thing to do is grab the first one, give him a dollar, and the rest will leave you alone. Yes, I know it’s not good to do that, I know it encourages it, and, yes, I know that the money is most likely going towards drugs. On the other hand, it was probably the easiest way to give away less money.
The prison is set out with five blocks surrounding a central area which leads to an outside courtyard. The blocks are of varying standards, with C Block being the best. And, like most prisons, money is all that determines the quality of life you will have here, rather than your behaviour or the crime you committed. You are expected to pay for your cell, and a tiny room in C Block will set you back a couple of thousand dollars. It’s yours until you leave, although our friend the Brit inside reckoned that he’d be able to sell his on. And, tiny though the space was, peeling though the paint may have beeen, it was fully equipped with a TV, stereo, DVD player and other bits and bobs. The bathroom, little more than a cubicle with a toilet, a shower head above and a sink, had a few additions: a small fridge-freezer, a few shelves for food and a mini stove. A kitchen and bathroom in one, in a space in which you can barely turn around.
On the other hand, if you come into the prison without financial aid, you will be given a bed in the worst block, and fed the prison rations which, we were assured, you wouldn’t feed to a pig. If you have money, you can have anything you want in there, from a phone to drugs to prostitutes, and if you don’t you are at the bottom of the pile, which might just end in death from neglect.
While all this is supremely depressing, and I apologise for it (although it is a post about a prison, so it was never going to be overly cheery), I have to say that on balance I was relieved that the conditions of the prison, at least the parts I saw, weren’t worse. I was fully braced for Thai-style slums. But here there is at least a community, with restaurants, shops and a library with internet run by the prisoners. It’s surprisingly clean. And the atmosphere wasn’t threatening or menacing, although of course it’s easy to say that as someone who spent all of a few hours in there.
Getting out of this prison isn’t easy – that could be a whole post in itself – but at least once you’re in there you can buy your way out of trouble. Fine for those who can afford it.