Shortly after nine a.m. on March 7, 1996, I hopped off a bus on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador. A man named Pedro was waiting for me just inside the main entrance of the prison. He was arrested at age 21 for allegedly forging a passport. Three years later his trial began. A year later he was acquitted.
The relatives of the prisoners stood outside holding buckets collecting money for the rent. Even after paying rent to be in prison, each prisoner had to pay a separate fee to be released. It did not matter whether they were acquitted. Within three weeks, Pedro?s family would have enough money to set him free. He had just turned 25.
Pedro led me through the first set of gates into the office of the warden to submit my request to tour the prison for a couple of hours. The warden didn?t object to a brief tour. He even offered two guards as escorts. That was generous since there were only ten of them watching over a thousand inmates.
When they opened the next set of gates leading to the prison cells, I was almost floored by the smell of the living quarters. It smelled like urine, fecal matter, and body odor all mixed together. Later, I would smell rotting meat ready to be boiled in the prison kitchen.
I will never forget the looks on the faces of the prisoners in the downstairs cells. There were dozens packed into the one cell I entered that was only 36 square meters. The prisoners were dirty. Some had clothes nearly rotting off their backs. But they made room for me when I came into the cell and smiled warmly as they answered my questions. Before I left, I noticed a butcher knife sitting on an old broken TV set. Some of the prisoners had fresh scars on their bodies.
Just before we entered the kitchen, we saw a guard beating a young man savagely with a large club. A few minutes later, we were upstairs talking to the prisoners in the nicer part of the prison. There were only about 20 inmates in the upstairs cells. The rent was higher and prisoners were allowed to keep personal effects in their own bunks. A man I spoke to had several pictures of Jesus and his own Bible in the lower bunk.
Pictures of Jesus look different in South American prisons. They often portray a painful expression, a crown of thorns, and blood. Not the peaceful look of the ones at home.