Notes from inside a Mexican prison
PASSPORT CHECKED. Permission slip given.
We were met by the doctors who would escort us to the medical center of the Reclusorio Sur prison on the southern outskirts of Mexico City. I had to go through a pat down by a group of women. They were seated at a table eating tortillas and chicken with mole. They didn’t look up. The fattest one reached out her chubby arms to pat my sides a bit. She didn’t get up from the table. Apparently, I would be a good choice if you were looking to smuggle something into prison.
More checkpoints. They stamped my wrist with two invisible stamps, as if I were entering a nightclub. “Don’t erase them, guera,” the guard warned. Another checkpoint. I handed my passport to a guard, and he gave me a plastic number to wear around my neck. I reunited with the members from the human rights organization and a representative of the British Embassy, and we descended a ramp. Another checkpoint, and I put my wrist inside a wooden box with a black light. We exited the building, entered another, and then were out in the open.
Prisoners lined the walkways and slept in the grass, sweaters wrapped around their heads. They looked drunk or dead from their sprawled positions. Hundreds of men lounged at tables, hundreds of men lined up in front of the medical center.
Really, it was hardly a medical center. That sounds too nice. It was a ruin of a place with some underpaid doctors and a few pieces of sometimes functional equipment. It smelled damp and dirty; no amount of Clorox could mask the sweat, blood, fear, and boredom — all the things produced when you hold 4,000 men in an area built for 1,200.
The doctors introduced themselves. They were mostly young and male, and made $500-600USD a month. One had such clear blue eyes that he looked like a demon. I wanted to ask, “Are those your original eyes?” as people often asked me. Instead, I stared at him.
The rooms were spare and the floor a patchwork of peeling linoleum. The lights were rigged by some homemade electrical system consisting of red and blue wires held by tape to the ceiling. The offices had no computers, only old-fashioned typewriters. Even those, the doctors brought themselves. The file cabinet room overflowed with thick folders whose worn pages described the inmates’ health. If a judge requested a file, the doctors had to search for it by hand and mail in the original. I imagined how slow that process was, and how often documents got lost.
When I saw the inmates, I tried to look into their eyes. I wanted to know what they knew, what they felt. One old man in particular stuck with me. He was very thin, and when he held up his shirt I could see that my fingers would easily fit around his waist. He had soft brown eyes and looked profoundly lost. He shuffled. I would never know his life.
After a tour of the medical center, we walked through the prison complex. “Have a nice day! How are you? We love you!” men yelled at me as eagerly as kids. We walked past two outdoor soccer complexes, an outdoor gym, stalls selling street food, beer, and soft drinks, and an informal market. Street food? Beer? A market? I wondered who was selling the food, where it came from, where the profits went, and where the inmates got money.
“Everything is for sale and everything for an inmate depends on his family and how much they support him,” explained one of the human rights lawyers. “With money, he will get along. Without it, he will become a beggar. He will survive by cleaning, washing, and performing services for other inmates.”
We arrived at the dormitories of the gay, transgender, and transsexual community on the periphery of the expansive complex. The word that came to my mind was ghetto or ghettoized. I use the term dormitory rather than cell, because a cell implies a locked cement block where a prisoner lives behind bars. In the Reclusorio Sur, the rooms are tiny, but there are no bars or locks. The tiny rooms where the gay, transgender, and transsexual community live have no doors or bars; only a worn piece of cloth hung over a string provides privacy. The rooms have three or four sad bunks, but house up to 20 prisoners, many of whom sleep on the cement floor.
As we approached the building, I looked into a dark, narrow hallway and saw nipples, breasts, a lace bra top, and painted-on eyebrows. I didn’t want to be shocked, and yet in a place so saturated with maleness — I was. As I got closer, I noticed the used bodies, the scars on faces, bellies, arms, the faded tattoos, the tired, pockmarked faces.
- “What is your name?” asked a transgender man in a tiny striped tank top.
“Alice, I am La Oaxaca.”
His nipples pointed in opposite directions as if drunk.
- “I’m here because I am a prostitute, and a policeman who was a client arrested me for stealing his cell phone.”
“How long have you been here?”
“18 months of a two year sentence. If I had paid the court fee, I could have gotten out immediately.”
“Do you feel like the doctors here attend to your medical needs?” I asked.
The reason we had come to the prison was to interview these prisoners about their access to medical care.
- “Fuck them. I was just there this morning, and they told me to go away. It is hard for us to get to the medical center because we are so far away, and the other prisoners harass us. We hardly ever leave our dormitory for fear of violence.”
I poked my head behind the curtain of his room, and saw a plywood ceiling covered in open electrical wires.
- “We wired the electricity ourselves,” said La Oaxaca.
I looked at the plywood beds, the sad mattresses, and the tiny TV. Down the hallway, I heard a doctor ask, “Do you have any medical problems?” to a skeletal-looking man.
“I just came to see you an hour ago, and you ignored me,” replied the man.
Outside the dorm, men hand-washed clothes and scrubbed them against the concrete floor. When they were done, they hung them from trees and makeshift lines. After 20 minutes, the prison guards escorted us out of the dorm, and walking in the sunlight, I looked back at the darkened dorm and the figures huddled inside. La Oaxaca yelled, “Come back soon!”
We walked back to the center of the prison complex and were given a tour of the “handicapped dorms,” which were surrounded by lush gardens. It was peaceful, and the dorms were two stories and had rooms with windows. It used to be the narco section of the prison, but they renamed it, theoretically for the handicapped. However, it continues to be the section of the prison where those with money can live comfortably.
As I walked down the long hallway of the dorm, I saw rooms with mini-fridges, and wondered if anyone would offer me a beer. In one room, a man was frying flautas. He peered at me over boiling oil.
When we got back to the medical center, I looked out through the orange jail bars at the groups of men waiting to see a doctor. They leaned up against the bars with tired, glassy eyes. On my way out, prisoners yelled at me, “How are you? Have a good trip! Goodbye. We miss you!” in English. I felt a certain heat, the intense concentration of male eyes.