Saturday, June 06, 2009

Prison in Belize

A few years ago when I lived in Belize I heard about the prison in Hattieville. I heard that “outsiders” were not allowed in. I think I was misinformed. And of course, I wanted in. I later met a Jesuit Volunteer who once worked in the prison. We didn’t talk too much about the prison then but I remember being intrigued that an “outsider” got in. How exotic!
Being a traveler, an adventurer of sorts, the “road less traveled” brings a certain thrill into my existence but more than anything, I always want to see things for myself. I don’t simply want to hear about the conditions within a town, school, organization or prison…but I want to see them with my own damn eyes (thank you very much)!
However, in the case of the prison, I have to admit my professional interests as well. Before I was born my parents did some sort of prison ministry. My mother also wrote letters to one man. My father later worked with violent (and mentally ill) criminals. The thought that I might carry on my life’s work in a prison is an interesting and potential full circle of sorts. And so, maybe this whole prison trip during my “vacation” to Belize was just a bit self serving. But what an experience it was.
So let’s start a few days before we got to the prison.
In true Belizean form everyone knows someone and any little connection helps. As it turns out, I have some good and well connected friends. One friend knew a priest that goes to the prison daily while another friend has a connection with the director (aka the warden) of the prison. Now we have our names to drop at the front gate after we leave our wallets, cell phones, and everything else in the car.
Ok, but the really funny part about this whole pre-trip to the prison was letting other friends know our plans for Friday. A typical conversation would go like this.
Person A: “What are doing this weekend?”
My friend: “Oh, we’re going to the prison and then to Bakab for a swim.” (*Note: Bakab is a resort that has a nice pool and some animals.)
Person A: “What?! Why would you want to go there? (turning to me) Meg, why would you let them bring you to the prison on your vacation?”
My friend: (to my defense) “Oh, Meg wants to go…she’s going to be a social worker.” (*Note: in Belize a social worker is anyone who does counseling.)
Person A: “Oh”
Ya, so basically, the idea of going to the prison in Belize, is a conversation stopper. Everyone has a good laugh and walks away thinking that I’m a little crazy (which is really ok with me). However, the whole interaction is very telling.
The Prison:
It’s Friday morning and my friends and I stayed out late the night before at some rasta bar downtown. We still managed to wake up early but I’m dozing off in the bus and car on the way. I could tell that my friends were getting a bit nervous because they start telling jokes about going to prison and never coming back. “Well as long as we get out (of prison) then we can go to Bakab,” one of them says.
She is only half joking…
We drive out into the bush on the highway. It’s been a while since I’ve seen houses and a friend points to the prison coming up. There are people behind this shotty fence, working. It’s already hot out at 9:30am and I think to myself, “oh, this is a working prison.”
We pull up in front of the gift shop and someone says, “we’ll have to go there when we come back,” and we nod in unison.
As we get to the front gate I hold back. Sometimes when people see a gringo they get nervous and/or suspicious, so I let my friends to the talking as I watch a woman pour packets of kool-aide into a ziplock bag of sugar. Family members often come for visits bringing extra provisions for loved ones that are not provided by the prison. Everything from clothing, bedding and food are coveted items for those behind the fence. I know that they guard had searched her bag before we arrived but the interesting thing is that we were never searched at the gate. The guard just told us to leave money and cell phones in the car so we did. But that was it. I wasn’t really looking forward to the frisk in the hot sun anyway.
So we got through the first gate and then waited in the reception area. Walking into this building a gringa woman was going up a staircase above me with a man who wore a long sleeve shirt that he buttoned to the top of his neck, the style I am accustomed to with some gang members. I wondered if she was a counselor, a minister or maybe a lawyer. I remember catching myself saying, “I wonder what he did,” with the added internal commitment to stop sizing people up while I’m in the prison. Note to self: Human Dignity.
In the reception area men passed back and forth. Some of the men had uniforms and the rest did not. That was the only distinction I could make between people who went home at night and those that didn’t. We waited around, got our visitors passes and Mr. Perez, a guard with three stripes on his shoulder, began our tour. As the only gringa in the group, Mr. Perez first began to address me, probably thinking I was the reason the rest of our group was there in the first place (partially true). But in typical Meg fashion, I played it off and hung to the back, knowing that my talkative friends would begin asking questions soon enough. The first stop was the cafeteria where I learned that an outside organization prepares breakfast, lunch and supper for the inmates. Inside the kitchen, the head cook brought us around as big pots cooked rice and beans. It was REALLY hot inside there and we soon took the questions and conversation outside.
One thing that I became immediately struck by was just how polite people were. Probably part of it was because we were visitors and everyone was on their best behavior. However, I think there is also a certain cultural understanding of politeness within Belize. So as prisoners and guards passed by, we were always greeted with “good morning” as if we were walking down a Belizean street. I think that helped in keeping my wandering mind away from the potential crimes of the men I was meeting. And to be honest, I wasn’t really afraid while I was within the prison compound, but rather I was more attuned to treating those I met with a sense of compassion lacking in judgment. My friends on the other hand, they were afraid.
We walked a bit more into the compound as Mr. Perez explained the different sections to us. Men played a game of barefoot soccer as Mr. Perez pointed out the buildings and the “Tango” system. Tango seven, to our left was a maximum security building. There were not allowed to leave their metal fenced wall and play soccer or work in the field. They were here for long sentences and Mr. Perez that they might try to escape. He says this just as we begin walking towards Tango seven and he points to the armed guard on the roof holding a large semi-automatic rifle. The doors to the Tango seven compound open. Two men, prisoners, open the door for us. It’s a sort of honor system. They know who can come and who has to stay. One of my friends begins her nervous laugh as we walk past the gates bidding them a “good morning”. We walk into the building of Tango seven, there are men outside watching us and I remember thinking, “this is not the tour I expected…maximum security!”
The short entry corridor before the office presents two rooms on each side with a metal barred door that locks. There are seven bunked beds within each room and I see men walking in and out of the rooms freely. In one room, men gather around a very small TV and watch a rap video on MTV. They look at us and I smile, looking at the tattoos on the arms of one man. He looks like a stereotypical gang member. I am more interested in understanding the meaning of his tattoos (I’ve always been interested in body art).
At the entry way to the office behind a plexiglass window, a man with dredlocks walks up to us holding two baskets made of paper that he just finished. Inmates make crafts to sell in the gift shop. The baskets are small and colorful. My friend later buys his two baskets for $5BZ each. Later we plan and plot about prison marketing initiatives to sell those “cute” baskets at Easter time.
Inside the office of Tango seven we give the woman in charge our names. They write everything in a daily log, including visitors. Mr. Perez explains the “Prefect system” of prisoners who serve as peer supervisors within the Tango. The Prefect is the person that you go to if a light is out, the water stopped running or there is a general problem. He’s the guy who will contact the correct people to get things done and from what I understand, they have a bit of leeway in the Tango as well.
We didn’t make it any further than the office before we continued with our tour outside of Tango seven. One friend of mine gave a sigh of relief as the doors of the compound opened to let us out. On the walkway we passed by the Jesuit priest we knew. He goes to the prison every single day for mass and counseling. He was carrying a bag while some other men were hauling the amplifier and some more materials. We greeted him in passing and continued on.
Mr. Perez pointed out the building with the technology and radio system, as the current piece of entertainment was a recording of a gringa evangelist televised over the loudspeaker. She talked about sin, resurrection and conversion. I wasn’t interested and felt the synic in me wondering why the prisoners had to be subjected to such garbage. Then I realized that some of them might actually be listening and/or be looking for that kind of message. To each his own…
The pond to our right had a little turtle in the center, sticking his head out of the water. Men pass by and smile at us as we point to the turtle. For once we aren’t looking at them. We continue on our way around the pond, Mr. Perez points to one of the Tangos. “That’s where the crazies are,” as he points.
Apparently, this is the part of the prison where the mentally ill are kept. He doesn’t bring us any further into that Tango as he explains that those people “went crazy when they got here.”
We asked him if there are counselors and he says yes. I wonder about the frequency or what else happens behind closed doors but I don’t ask and we continue on to the juvenile section.
The juvenile section is for boys 17 years and younger. It’s run like a military unit with marching and barrack style sleeping. Apparently, they are preparing these young men to become part of the military later on. That seems common. They wake up at 4:30am, do exercising, make their beds, wash up and continue on with their regimented day. The guards who look over this section act as parents according to one man we met. He has two stripes on his guard uniform and brings us to each building explaining how things work. We even go to the room where boys are carving wood figurines to sell in the gift shop. Some of those boys are very talented.
The man giving us the tour of the juvenile section explains that they can leave prison with a craft and earn money. Some will learn to carve and others will learn how to farm, pointing out the garden to the side of the classroom. As it turns out, he was once an inmate but he changed his life around. Now he works at the prison. He says that he understands these boys and they respect him for it. He later invites us to come back someday and talk with the boys, ask them why there are there. “They will tell you everything,” he says.
“Poverty…abusive fathers…stealing to eat…they will be honest with you,” he continues.
His long lecture / conversation in the hot sun is a bit annoying because it’s so hot and it feels so long, but it’s also very interesting. I appreciate his invitation for a follow-up visit. I think to myself, “maybe I will come back someday.”
At this point in the tour I am dripping with sweat and I’m hungry. I can feel the sun beating down and I am planning my next meal. Mr. Perez brings us on to another section. From my understanding this next area in the far back corner is not technically part of the Tango system. The men inside are not prisoners anymore but are there on their own will. It’s a really a rehab program where men with substance abuse issues go through a three month workbook series before they leave the prison system. The Prefect who greets us at the door is very jovial and explanatory. He is eager to explain how this program works, emphasizing that he is a graduate himself. We later learn that he chooses to live there because every time he leaves, he gets hooked again and evidently ends up back in the system. According to Mr. Perez, he likes giving back to this community and prefers staying.
I was really quite impressed with this section of the prison. It was the first time during my tour that I saw evidence of officials helping the inmates transition into civilian life again. The fact that so many men decided to participate in this program seemed hopeful to me. Maybe it’s a “rose colored glasses” kind of thing.
Our next and last stop was the women’s section. Also set off in a far corner, the women’s section is not only far removed but very small. When we entered there were two AA meetings going on, one for English speaking and the other for Spanish speaking. Apparently everyone is in AA. As it turns out we knew one of the women. I recognized her from Orange Walk, where I once lived. I couldn’t remember her name but my friend talked to her for a while. She explained that she was just let out of the prison but they hired her to work there in the AA program. She wants to go back to school to be a social worker. As we leave the women’s section Mr. Perez talks about when she first came to prison and how skinny she was. Now she has meat on her bones and is back on her feet. She too prefers to live at the prison, knowing that life on the outside just might be too challenging for her right now. People seem to respect that.
As we leave the prison and return our visitor badges back in I think about returning. There are a lot of unanswered questions I still have. And there’s a part of me that wants to do something or help somebody. I’ve got to get over that and just BE sometimes.
Nevertheless, the experience was quite interesting. I’m sure I will be thinking about that day for a long time.


Ramirez said...

I visited the prison as wel it was a very interesting trip.

roy said...

Very good description. Thank you. I live close to this prison. Great insight and feeling.