Dinner in Prison | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Dinner in Prison

Last night I went with a couple of friends to the Guanajuato State Prison just east of San Miguel. We were bringing a New Year's dinner party to the inmates. For me, a white-bread Silicon Valley guy, it was a life-changing experience.

We arrived at the prison with hundreds of bolillos, two huge cans of sliced jalapeños, gallons of Sprite, cookies, cups, paper plates, napkins and maybe a thousand cigarettes. Oh, and two five-gallon plastic buckets containing twenty kilos of carnitas. (The carnitas guy was so pleased with our large order that he threw in a kilo of liver for free. Where else would you ever get that?)

At the second of many checkpoints, we were told that someone had forgotten to put the names of us Norteamericanos on the list of approved visitors. The Mexican visitors would be allowed in. The Americans, no.

While I hadn't anticipated this snag, I wasn't surprised by it. Mexico has been teaching me to take delays and obstacles in stride with patience and good humor. Of course we wouldn't be allowed in with our cooling buckets of carnitas. Never mind that this event had been planned for months. No matter that we had obtained approvals from every third government official in the state. Not to worry that hundreds of inmates and scores of guards were standing around waiting for the party to begin.

No, someone somewhere had forgotten to enter our names on a list. Being New Year's weekend, no one with authority to approve our visit was at the prison. There was nothing that could be done. Lo siento. We would have to go home. Perhaps another time...

My friend Sergio, who had set our visit in motion, began negotiations with Luz, the gatekeeper who was not allowed to admit us to the prison on her own authority. Señora, these gringos spent $5,500 pesos for this food. It is not reasonable that they be prevented from bringing it to the inmates. Surely there is a way to get them inside.

Luz, a good-hearted woman, went off to seek someone's approval. We were to wait. We found seats on a retaining wall and stared into the entryway where guards in black fatigues stood behind a counter.

Soon, a couple hundred women and children emerged from the prison. Visiting hours were over. The families carried paintings and wooden models and a variety of hand crafts. Some appeared to be presents made in the prison shops by their husbands. Others—stacks of identical paintings—obviously were merchandise for the wives to sell. The posture and demeanor of the families created a sense of normalcy, as if everyone were getting off work from a shift at the light bulb factory.

At last, a Social Services coordinator approached and informed us our appeal had been denied. We would not be allowed to enter. My two buddies and I were walking out the front gate when someone ran after us and announced the good news that just one of us would be admitted after all. Apparently the gatekeepers had talked the situation over and had decided to break a rule. A little bit. One person's worth.

Great. I was going to be an unauthorized visitor at a Mexican jail. I was going to be smuggled into the place. And smuggled out—hopefully.

At the counter inside, I was asked to show identification and to hand over my watch, wallet, coins and belt. (Anticipating I would be relieved of my belt, I had worn pants that would stay up without one.) Luz, peering at my Mexico driver's license, carefully transcribed my name onto the bottom of the official visitors' list, which she kept on a piece of lined paper that she had roughly torn from a spiral bound notebook: Hubb Ard Wood John. Then she asked me, "Señor Hoob, ¿que significa 'Hoob' en español?"

Now there was much cross-checking of identifications and lists. I passed the time contemplating a display of the various types of high heels that would not permitted inside the prison. Finally we passed through the first of many airlock-type gates and checkpoints where we were frisked and our IDs were repeatedly taken away and given back. Negotiating dark, gray corridors of metal mesh walls, we ascended a narrow circular iron stairway—an easily defended choke point—and found ourselves in a chaotic crowd of maybe 150 khaki-clad inmates.

This was one of those moments where one realizes that life is more fragile than tissue. I later discovered that these men all were doing sentences of 20-30 years for crimes of aggravated assault, rape and murder. If they had been men of evil intent, if they had been resentful or angry, if maybe they had just not liked us, our safety might have been at risk. The room we were in contained a couple of unarmed guards. They didn't even carry nightsticks (a sensible precaution when you think about it, given that if there were any trouble, their weapons would instantly be in the hands of the inmates). In no way could the guards have provided us any protection. We found ourselves completely dependent on the goodwill of these violent criminals and other (no doubt resentful) people who had been railroaded through the Mexican court system without benefit of counsel.

My apprehension was immediately dispelled by smiling faces, proffered handshakes, a boisterous welcome. Whatever their motivation, these men were glad to see us. Maybe it was the carnitas or the cigarettes. Maybe they were looking for contacts on the outside. Maybe they were hoping for someone with influence to lighten their sentences. But I got the impression that these men were simply greeting welcome guests.

The agenda was: Speeches first, food second. I had been invited to speak, and knowing I would have difficulty keeping my wits about me at a podium while trying to think in my third language, I wrote out what I was going to say ahead of time. I deliberately did not vet my speech with Erika, my Spanish teacher, because I wanted these men to see me exactly as I was—execrable Spanish and all. I spoke for ten minutes. I finished to cheers of appreciation, a truly heartwarming moment.

I spent an hour working the room, handing out cigarettes (which are used as currency). Many of the prisoners had lived in the USA and wanted to show off their English. Others I spoke with in my crummy Spanish. They told me how long they were in for, and for what crimes. They described their work in the prison shops and how they were studying law (naturally) at the university extension. They told me how prisons were better in Mexico than in the US because they could see their families a lot of the time and they got weekly conjugal visits. Many ten-year veterans had two-year-old kids.

Later, their band played favorite songs. Four guitars, a bass and two accordions sounded better than most of the professionals I hear in town, and everyone sang enthusiastically. Finally a guard came over and told me it was time to leave. Then the most amazing thing happened. The inmates all crowded around me, touching me, shaking my hand, hugging me. Their need for contact was extraordinary.

What was that all about? All I can think of is that they are mostly forgotten people. Most are in their twenties and will be middle-aged when they get out of prison. Maybe touching me brought them a taste of the outside. Maybe they didn't want to be forgotten again; maybe they didn't want me to forget them.

I won't.