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Incarcerated in Quito Womens Prison

Written on: Saturday August 16th, 2008

A journal entry from: Trails in 2008

What´s a trip to South America without going to prison?    For the foreigners incarcerated for drug offences, it´s a real drag - but for us, who could visit for a few hours, it was a fascinating experience.   We went to visit a girl from South Africa called Angie, who has been in Quito womens prison for a little under a year now. 
Armed with various toiletries and medication to make her life more comfortable, we set off one Saturday morning, where me and Al are seperated for searching and get a series of stamps up our arm to show we have been searched and ID checked.  No cameras, cellphones, sunglasses or pineapples (they make alcohol with it) allowed.
The dollar bills in our pockets are soon dispersed, to some inmates standing at the door to take you to the person you have come to visit, other inmates are selling raffle tickets, its a bit of minefield of prisoners selling stuff for cash when we first arrive. 
It´s not a traditional prison as we know them, it had more of a boarding school atmosphere, in fact it really reminded me of the hostel for training nurses where my friend lived in Wellington - which says something good about Quito prison or bad about NZ student living conditions... I´m not sure which!  The prisoners wear their own clothes, there´s a lively and upbeat atmosphere when we´re there and its difficult to tell who´s a visitor.  Visiting days are Wednesdays and the weekend, and visitors are allowed to roam inside the prison pretty freely, including the cells (which allows some of the women to earn money by having ´guests´). 
The prison is made up of lots of wings of about 10 cells, which share a shower, loo and a small kitchen.  Each cell is closed off by a white metal door with a little peephole.  Traditional prison style metal bars block the entrance to each wing - the key held by a sedate looking plain-clothed woman of about 50.   They are generally free to go wherever they want in the prison but get locked in their rooms from about 9.30pm till 7am.
We met Angie, a 24 year old South African and she showed us her room, just big enough for two bunk beds, lots of magazine posters on the walls and a small window near the ceiling.  We were surprised to see her mother sitting on the bottom bunk (more on that later).  She took us down to the outdoor area, which is a basketball court with kids playing and prisoners selling fried chicken, and told us a bit about life in prison.
When Angie and her mother arrived there, they had to buy a room, which was a one-off cost of $20-50 (some wings are nicer than others).  They then had to buy wood and materials to make their own beds (cost about $50) and they have to buy their own food, cook their own meals and pay around $3 per month for gas for showers and cooking.  The prison used to have a lot of children living there with their mothers, but recently this has changed when a 14 year old boy got an inmate pregnant....
She told us how she ended up in there, which to cut a long story short came down to a male friend of hers paying for her and her mum to travel to europe, then to ecuador where she was given 2 new, empty suitcases for them to take to his sister back home, but the foam inside had been injected with liquid drugs and they got caught at Quito airport and landed in jail.  Sounded plausable, but there were a few parts of the story that didn´t quite sound right to us - never mind, lucky for her and her mum the Courts have been inclined to believe them and they were due to be released the following week on a kind of house arrest, where they will have to find an apartment, jobs, and live in Quito for another year before receiving a ´free´sentence and being able to return home.  Their only language was Afrikaans with a little bit of english, and it must have been so difficult to learn spanish and master english as well - they did not seem like they were particularly well off, so had not much financial support from their family or much help from the South African consulate. 
The only other foreigner in there was a Thai girl who was also scammed by a male (relative) to carry drugs home, and who thanks her lucky stars daily that she was not caught on the next flight to Asia, where she would certainly have been executed by now.   Lucky for these foreign prisoners they can earn money through an American religious group, who support them financially by onselling the Christmas cards they make for $2 a pop - probably better paid than most free people in Ecuador! 
I made sure I didn´t smudge the stamps up my arm so the security at the door would let me out!  I stole a few photos I found off the web to show what the inside looks like.