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Quito Prison

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Visiting the Quito Women's Prison
(Further below, A Wyoming Teenage Girl's Story)

It is very hard to find the Quito women's prison as it is quite small and fits in well with the nondescript neighborhood. There is a vague dot on the Quito map in the "Lonely Planet: Ecuador" book but no address. From town you could take any bus that says "Inca", the name of the neighborhood to the north of town, east of the airport, and that would get you closer. I took buses, asked everybody and eventually found it, but maybe a cheap, easy way is to take the trolley to the last stop and take a taxi from there, but even then not everyone knows where the prison is. Coming back you can take a bus directly from the prison back down to Avenida America and Colon in Mariscal Sucre, where most people stay.

The big difference between this and other prisons is that you don't need a name of someone to visit. Also, you can bring just about anything you want with you. A guard told me they would watch your camera and the stuff that they don't allow you to bring in, which includes any fruit that could be fermented into alcohol. There isn't much you couldn't bring as a gift. Food is always appreciated as well as toiletry items such as shampoo, soap, tampons, etc. You could bring a book, but I saw the library and there were tons of books in it, though I don't know if any were in languages other than Spanish. I didn't know the rules when I went and wasn't sure if they would let me in, so I didn't bring a thing, but I offered to take letters and mail them at the post office. This is a good service because letters mailed directly from the prison rarely make it out. Also, I had the woman I visited write a quick letter that I transcribed and sent as an email to her mother back home, which was very much appreciated.
Since there are stores nearby, I imagine you might be able to go back out and buy something that a prisoner would want. They don't get supplied with anything at all, so unexpected things like a towel or plastic bucket might be good items. If you didn't bring anything it would be OK, too. Nothing is necessarily expected, and the offer to mail letters from the outside might be better than what you could bring inside.

(By the way, visiting the prison in Lima, Peru is very difficult as the rules are onerous and you must have a first AND last name of the prisoner, though I have heard that if you slip the guard a dollar or two you can get in. The best information is in the South American Explorers Club in Lima. They have an information sheet that spells out all the rules, but they didn't have any full names and their suggestion to call the embassies to get full names won't get you anywhere. Also, the prison is very distant, way past the Barranco neighborhood. Another prison is in the north of town.)

Can you see the stamp on my arm?

Minimum security, maximum access

The guards take your passport and sign you in. They stamp your arm, pat you down, check your bags and then point you in the right direction. On your way out they stamp your arm again and you need to show it to get your passport back.
After I went through the guards and walked around a corner I wasn't sure if I was inside yet or not, and at another gate there was a woman demanding to know whom I wanted to visit. The woman is not a guard (I didn't see any guards at all on the inside, but no one wears a uniform, so it is hard to tell); she is just looking to be paid 20 cents for finding whomever you want to see. After you pass through this gate you are inside and free to go wherever you want, except above to the cells, though I was told that if you pay a guard, you could visit them, too. (Several women use this method to work as prostitutes for food--they serve only one meal a day--or for daily necessities since they have no other way to acquire anything.)

Visiting days are Wed 10-12 and 1-4, and Sat and Sun from 10-12 and 1-6, I believe. If you are still in the prison when they close at noon, you can't get out; you must stay inside until they open again at 1pm. This isn't as big of a deal as it sounds. They have two little stores if you get hungry or thirsty. I thought it was a good idea to visit right at 10am.

This must be a minimum-security prison as there is no separation at all between prisoners and visitors. I met an American, a Hungarian and a German woman. I was told that there are 3 Germans, 2 Americans, 2 Spaniards, as well as Dutch, Indonesian, Hungarian, Thai, and Hong Kong prisoners. All of the westerners and almost all of the other prisoners are in for drugs for one reason or another. Most are serving the minimum sentence of 8 years, but in some cases you can "pay" half of your penalty and do only 4 years. Some prisoners haven't been sentenced yet, such as the three that I met. If you don't get sentenced within a year, they have to let you go. Sadly, there are many children in the prison. In many cases if a prisoner gives birth the child stays inside with no schooling. Children as old as 12 are locked up inside.

Not all the foreigners can or want to meet with visitors. Many stay inside for the regular meetings with missionaries, though one girl told me that it is mainly because they always bring cake.
The prisoners generally speak very freely about their situation and life in the prison. I think it breaks up the boredom for them to meet with someone from the outside. The atmosphere is not at all like you would expect. It almost feels like a school courtyard. Most people huddle around on benches or on the ground inside or outside and quietly speak together. One couple near me barely spoke at all; they just sat on the ground poignantly holding each other.

I spoke for 90 minutes with an American girl, and it was a fascinating, unforgettable, humbling, sad experience. I very much recommend it.

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     This is taken almost verbatim from my journal book at the time. I wrote a lot more, but I thought it would test your patience too much. In fact, this has not been planned out the way I would want it, but there you go.
     Deepest apologies.

Today was an unforgettable day, one I won't soon forget, and all because I met a girl that I will call Jennifer. In prison. Just an incredible experience. I dare say that Jennifer might leave a more indelible memory of South America than Machu Picchu.

When I think about it afterward, I don't know how conversation starts and how subjects get brought up, but they just do. I am happy to speak narrowly about anything if the person doesn't want to talk about "touchy issues". I've done this several times in Asia, and my sense is that prisoners like visitors if for nothing more than the random gifts and to break up the monotony. Also, they usually have nothing to gain from lying to you, so they are upfront and open about their experiences and history.

Nonetheless, I haven't met anyone like Jennifer. I was struck by how normal she looked, which was just like every single well-scrubbed, fresh-faced Midwest girl, bubbling with energy. She wore a small white shirt, jeans and thongs. You wouldn't look twice if you saw her on the street, but this 18 year old from southwestern Wyoming swallowed 80 ten-gram capsules of pure heroin that she intended to take on a flight to Newark and get $25,000 for her efforts. I think that was her cut. She was arrested in a hotel room bust that netted a lot of big shots as well, she discovered. She said they had time to flush everything down the toilet and so she had nothing on her, but they X-rayed her stomach anyway and found it all.

Her intention was to take 100 of these ten-gram slugs that were around 2 1/2 inches long and about 1/2 inch wide. Each bit of heroin had layers: latex, cellophane, latex, cellophane, and latex. She practiced swallowing this giant torpedo by first trying to swallow grapes whole. I think it was another food after that, and then it was little cocktail-sized wieners, then frozen cocktail wieners, whole. When the time came, they had force-fed her for a week before to fatten her up.

She needed 2 days of convincing to do this. (It was probably in bad taste to tell her the David Letterman joke about the Miss World pageant where in the talent part of the show Miss Colombia swallowed 50 condoms of heroin.) She got caught, and normally in due course these little slugs will find their way out in about 48 hours. Four days later they still weren't coming out, and if any single one unraveled inside of her, she'd probably die right away. She refused surgery, and only after seven days did they all come out. But, one got wedged sideways and it still irritates her. That one had only two layers left.

Jennifer volunteered all of this to me. I wouldn't even know what to ask. My friends don't do this stuff, as far as I know. She says she's guilty and in fact she's happy she got busted here rather than in USA. The prison conditions are not that bad, all things considered. Sitting in the courtyard it felt like a school, I remarked, and she said it's like a college dorm. Of course, it is anything but. Jennifer says there are fights everyday about men or money or drugs, sometimes fights with knives. Everyone steals from everyone else. Jennifer says she purposely avoids getting too close to anyone.

It sounds like a freewheeling place. You can get absolutely anything you want from outside, drugs included, if you have the money. (All of the foreigners are in for drugs. Most Ecuadorians are in for drugs.) Jennifer said the male guards have tried to sleep with her. I asked if she's been pressured by other girls here, and she said, "No. How do you rape another woman?" and added, "Everyone here is a lesbian."

Jennifer had only been in jail for 1 1/2 months. She hasn't been sentenced yet. There is a rule that if they don't sentence you within a year, they have to let you go, and she told of an Austrian girl who paid $18,000 to have her case buried for the year. Jennifer is hoping that teaching English to the prison director is going to help her a little.

I tried to be a good listener, to be supportive, to not be judgmental, but the more I heard about her boyfriend or husband or whatever he is, I tried hard to not snap. A 25-year-old Egyptian-Belgian helped get her into this mess. I forgot how they met, but Jennifer came down to Ecuador first as a 15-year-old exchange student. He played her like a fiddle. He's doing time in the men's prison, but she thinks he will get off soon, as much of the money she has gets siphoned to his lawyer. It's most incredible that the worst she can say now is, "I don't love him anymore." She says in another month and a half she will be allowed to go to the men's prison every week for what she calls "an intimate visit". She dreads getting pregnant, but she doesn't have condoms. She's been a Muslim for a while, which presents other issues, and she says her parents have kind of abandoned her. (Can you imagine being her parents and going through this nightmare?)

All of these facts are compelling, but it is the "What now?" that fixates me. As she herself said, if she does four years she'll only be 22 when she gets out, her whole life ahead of her. She's kind of down on America, but I encouraged her to get a degree somewhere. Together we conjured up a life for her on the outside, but I don't know if she was buying into it. I told her she was bright and good-looking and she could put this one little mistake behind her.
"One big mistake," she corrected me.

I tried to tell her she had a future. I was probably talking too much and sounding like her dad, but she sat close to me and gazed intently, hanging on my every word. I suppose there was a high level of comfort on her part to speak so freely, which pleased me. But the sad thing is, I don't know if she is able to recognize that this guy is a worthless scumbag that may very well sabotage her getting out soon. She still seems willing to continue on with him.

Also, she is still scheming. She was talking about a fake birth certificate to show she is a juvenile and some nonsense about Belgian passports that wasn't quite right. In addition, she said, "It would be easy to escape from here. That fence at the top isn't electric." At night few guards are around and she could bribe someone to look the other way. If she got out, she had some cockamamie plan to go over the border to Colombia somehow or maybe Peru. My heart went out for her and my instinct is to help somehow, but this is dangerous territory and I'd be in way over my head. I had to let go.

We had talked for so long I almost missed the 12-noon break where I would be literally locked in for another hour. Jennifer gave me a big hug goodbye as if I was the one who had to stay.

Late that night, my head full of thoughts, I wandered around the dead streets of my neighborhood. Most of Quito really shuts down and it becomes a ghost town after 9 or 10pm. A bunch of girls sat on a corner. One saw me coming and jumped up. Her eyes had a scary urgency. She came close and whispered, "Cocaine".

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And finally, the very pompous:      This page © Copyright 2004, Kent Foster