Inside View

Gareth Mason finds that visiting one of Quito's prisons is a sobering and cautionary dip into a very alternative culture...

When the prison door shuts behind you – you’re on your own. And that’s just the visitors. You soon find that the Ecuadorian prison system is somewhat different to what you find in Europe or North America. A vaguely organised chaos prevails behind those locked doors. Prisoners and visitors are free to wander from wing to wing, from foodstall to coffee stand, while yelling children charge about the women’s prison making a playground of their closed concrete home. Most of the foreigners jailed here have been sentenced for drug trafficking. Some are lifelong criminals, some incarcerated for a one-off job which went badly wrong. A few offer compelling cases to be set free.

It is not uncommon in South America for travellers to be set up by drug smugglers unwilling to risk their own liberty taking a bag through customs stitched full of cocaine. Being a gringo offers little immunity to the drug laws – where being a gringo means you almost certainly have more money to lose than the natives. Many prisoners are awaiting sentences long after they were arrested while many have lost considerable sums of money to crooked lawyers who took the case before hotfooting it with the cash.

Money rules life inside. This includes paying for the cramped shared cells and the digestible alternatives to the cauldron of greasy slop which serves as default prison food. Fresh food, books, cigarettes, toiletries and clothes are all gratefully received by the inmates, whether for personal use or as a form of barter. Many foreigners simply want company or news from home in a place in which they will always be an outsider. Visitors are considered sacrosanct in its overcrowded labyrinthine corridors and few who go are unmoved or not intimidated by the life inside. It’s a dark flip side to the pleasurable free life of most travellers through this colourful continent. Its true horror is how ‘normal’ you may find so many of its inmates.

Quito Sun 2004