THE MACHINE THAT DESTROYS PEOPLE (Inside Mexico’s Prisons)
To Adan Nieto Castillo For all we owe him And to Abraham Polo Uscanga For all he taught us
Tell me, bloody jailer, Among your keys Is there one to open flowers? Agustín Hernández, Reclusorio Norte, 1976
Contents Prologue * The machine that destroys people The destruction of concepts The economic basis of cruelty The readaptation of the individual to social disorder The physical destruction of the individual The destruction of skills and abilities Conclusions ** Detention In Reno with the beasts *** Reclusorio Norte, November 7, 1991 Center for Observation and Classification (COC) I COC II **** Down the slippery slope One who fell
Glossary (words in the text in italics) The following terms are left in the original Spanish: Apando: Punishment cell. Cabos de la fajina: The fajina chiefs –see below for fajina Cacharro: A pot. Chiva: Informer. La fajina: Forced labor, which also involves living in prison in the worst conditions; it is totally unconstitutional. The word was originally faena and was formerly used in Mexico to refer to extra work done by peones (semifeudal laborers) on haciendas (feudaltype estates). Fajineros (faeneros): prisoners who are forced to do la fajina, usually because they are too poor to pay their way out of it. Erizos: Literally, “urchins”; “street urchins”, the very poor. Estafeta: Messenger Ingreso: Reception. La lista: The list of prisoners read out each day by a jail warder –to avoid doing la fajina, the pagaderos pay him a sum of money when their names are read out. Manguerazo: Hose pipes. Mordida: Not strictly a prison term, as it used for all forms of bribery in Mexico. Padrino: “Godfather” –as in the book, “The Godfather”, by Mario Puzo Pagaderos: Those who pay the prison warders to avoid doing forced labor, i.e., most of the prisoners. Pesos: The book was written before Mexico’s currency was changed. In January, 1993, three 0s were eliminated. Thus, 400,000 pesos equivalent today to 400 pesos (at the current exchange rate at the end of 2002, this would be roughly equivalent to 38 dollars). However, between November, 1992 and November, 2002, prices in Mexico quadrupled, so 10 years’ ago the true value of 400 pesos would be 4 times what it is today, i.e. about 1,600 pesos.
PJDF: Policía Judicial del Distrito Federal. Mexico City’s Police Department. Rancho: Your food ration in prison, made inside the prison; it is of the worst quality. Reclusorio Norte: Mexico City’s Northern Penitentiary, situated in the far north of Mexico City, a very long trip for most residents. Also known as Reno. Renteo: A prison system in which a prisoner is blackmailed on pain of death. Salsa: In Mexico, salsa is a type of sauce, but here it refers to the dance that started in Cuba and became popular in Mexico during the 1970s/80s. Tío Mafias: Literally “Uncle Mafias”, a powerful prisoner (and a known murderer) who had his own office in the prison and was responsible for the illegal weekly collection of money from the prisoners, supported and surrounded by his cabos de la fajina, the fajina chiefs. Zorros: Literally “foxes” –a militarized police corps set up in the 1980s, authorized to carry heavy arms, grenades, etc., noted for their violence and cruelty.
PROLOGUE Prison is one of those places you don’t understand until you’ve been through it. Thanks to the joint efforts of judges, policemen, district attorneys, and lawyers, this inferno affects tens of thousands of Mexican citizens who are treated as guilty until proven innocent, or who are sent to bear the cost of Mexican “justice”. The ruinous and perverse network known as “Justice”, whose main object is profit and whose principal source of power and blackmail is prison, should be brought to an end. If a few judges spent a day as common prisoners in Ingreso)1 and in the Center for Observation and Classification (COC)2 at any prison this experience would be enough for them to see what they are really doing to people’s lives, to human dignity and to society. If a few court investigators and defense lawyers were put inside Mexican jails so that they could find out what they are like, if some members of the Assembly, some Federal Deputies and National Human Rights Commissioners were to eat rancho for just one day the same as the prisoners always eat, if some police agents who have forced “confessions” out of people using torture were to be incarcerated in these same prisons this would serve greatly for an objective debate about the true position of justice in Mexico and the possible solution of the aberrations within it. These reflections were written in prison, in Mexico’s City’s Reclusorio Norte (Northern Penitentiary) at the end of 1991 and the beginning of 1992. They would not have been written but for the valor and boldness of prison teacher Rebecca García Alba. Included towards the end of the account are the testimonies given by Guillermo Mota Marín, a Mazateco Indian, in the chapter entitled “Detention”, and by José Luis Avalos Trinidad, in the chapter entitled “In Reno with the beasts”. However, had it not been for Don Luis Cantón, director of the weekly “Cómo” (“How”), who published them for the first time, these reflections would have been left to the gnawing criticism of the mice. Don Luis was the director of the first publication that dared to provide space, when it was usual to leave prisoners in silence, and particularly unrepentant political prisoners who refused to discard their theoretical conceptions. No such luck with other magazines. That very common phenomenon among sensible democrats who were once active on the left was continually repeated –to paraphrase them: “I may not be in 1
Ingreso: the place the detainee is taken to at the beginning of his stay –although it is assumed that a person should stay there no longer than 72 hours, he could be there for months or even years. 2 Center for Observation and Classification: the area of the prison to which detainees are taken upon leaving Ingreso and where their personalities are studied, supposedly so that they can be placed in the dormitory most suited to their rehabilitation.
agreement with what you say, but I shall defend your right to say it to the death … through your own channels”. I’ll say no more: a country as democratic and pluralistic as ours has the brave, democratic and pluralistic reporters it deserves, all the more so when they show us the marks of their political militancy, which is still a crime in this country for some modern statesmen and the fainthearted. David Cilia Olmos
The Machine that Destroys People People value freedom and particularly “their own” freedom, once they realize that they have lost it. In other words, no one worries about the air until they have to fight for it –nobody mentions their liberty until they fall prisoner. But we should ask ourselves: What social role does prison actually play? What purpose does has it for those who become immersed in it? A story is told of a man who, after studying for decades and suffering what prisons do for himself, arrives at the following conclusion: prison is a sophisticated machine whose main function is to destroy men. And although it is usually assumed that the role of prison is to readapt the prisoners to a free and socially productive community, what is assumed is one thing, while reality is another. Is it the intention that crime will end thanks to prisons? To punish those who commit crimes so that they stop doing so? To maintain the established social order? To reeducate those who have overstepped the social norms? To mete out society’s revenge to those who have harmed the population, or to the State, or to the established order? In Mexico City, in five out of every 1,000 families, one or more members endure prison each year. This indicates that it is not a problem of marginal importance. The fact that at least 50,000 families in Mexico’s capital city do an intensive course in this social inferno indicates that it is no small problem. In fact, nothing that has been said has anything to do with the true functioning of prison as a machine for crushing the individual’s personality and values, and thus the personality and values of society. In fact, prison does not put an end to crime, but reproduces it, perfects it, recycles it and deepens it. This is because prison does not punish the criminal, but punishes those who are not yet criminals; because it does not prevent a repetition of the crime, but implements it instead, and does not itself reeducate anyone. As for those who do not lose their sense of social stability inside, this is not thanks to the prison and its mechanisms, but despite them. If the destruction of the isolated individual were motivated by a desire, or by an idea, of vengeance against those who upset social order, society or the State, it would by thoroughly absurd, given that the result is the exact opposite. As it is, prison necessarily reproduces the wounds against society, increases social disorder and discredits the State even further. Prison does indeed readapt individuals to society –not to what it is supposed to be, but to what society is in reality. Prison is an intensive therapy for those who pass through it to adapt themselves to the existing social disorder, so that they know how to offer bribes, buy people off, because this and no other way is the “right” way to relate to a decayed apparatus of the State.
What people learn quickly is that that they should not have any solidarity with their fellow creatures, that they cannot trust anyone, because this how individuals should relate to each other in a decadent society. They learn to transgress without upsetting the order, without calling attention to themselves; they learn to despise the laws, rules and regulations, but show respect and get in with those who make money out of them. They learn to lie, to distort, to bend to the powerful and humiliate the weak, to let bullies hit them and to hit those who cannot defend themselves, to allow others to manipulate without protest, with a servile smile on their lips. Prison does not restore individuals, but destroys them. It forces them to abandon a view of society inculcated in them by their parents, by their school and by the best ideals of humanity. In exchange, it infuses in them as accomplices the existing, decadent and criminal social disorder, which is nothing more than the superstructure of the mode of capitalist production. Every kind of person goes to prison, but their economic positions are not important, nor their ideological understanding, because the machine works day and night to destroy them, to convert them into raw material for social disorder. Generally speaking, two kinds of person arrive here: those lifestyle includes crime as a part of existence and, in contrast, those who have been blamed for a crime of circumstance, through bad faith but who are innocent, or firsttime offenders. This great division implies that one group, the first, is conscious of acting against the law and accepts prison as an occupational hazard, a misfortune for which they alone are to blame. Like the majority of those who have transgressed the law, they are not on the margin of society, but are a part of it. They are not antagonistic towards authority, but depend on its complicity and likemindedness. They know what prisons are like, either because they have been in them already or because prisons are well known in the society they keep. This professional affinity forms and reproduces circles, where, among other things, such experiences are exchanged. Although disagreeable. prison is not something that terrifies them or keeps them in a state of uncertainty, because inside, they are bound to find an old friend, perhaps a member of their own family, or because they themselves may already know it well. They know that, with all its discomfort, it is a place where you can survive and eventually leave. Their concepts of life, principles, dignity, emotional and social stability have been destroyed long ago, and their stay in prison is merely a reminder of the system, a warning, but in the end something provisional.
The people in the other group –i.e., those who are not really criminals –arrive in an unknown place, and in the environment that surrounds them they feel cut off from the people they were with before they arrived. Nevertheless, this group is the largest in any prison –it is people like themselves who form the “habitat”. Some, those who will in the end suffer and will be destroyed more seriously, deny the reality as if it were a nightmare from which they will suddenly awaken so that everything vanishes like a soap bubble. They become withdrawn, they close in on themselves. The only reference these people have of prison is what they have seen or read in novels. Therefore, when they actually fin themselves in one, they do not recognize it for what it is but interpret it through the filter of their preconceived ideas. They try at all costs to ensure that their families, friends and colleagues know nothing about their situation, and hope especially that their children, whatever age they are, never find out what is happening to them. They believe that in this way they are maintaining the ideal castle they have built around their children, whereas in reality they are defending the ideal castle that has been built around themselves. Therefore, generally speaking, those who see all the other prisoners as enemies, as people who at some stage will attack them, only manage to turn against themselves the hostility they express towards the other prisoners, in a “boomerang” effect, i.e. they turn the imagined hostility of others into real hostility. Meanwhile, they think that the authorities and the prison warders form part of an apparatus that will defend them, care for them, but not destroy them.
The destruction of concepts Thus, the first thing that prison is going to destroy is the individual’s conception of society, legality and justice. Here, it is quickly learned that legality is an accessory to be bought and sold; the law is complied with when those charged with upholding it are bribed. I do not know if there is any motorist in Mexico City who has never offered a bribe (in Mexico this is called a mordida) to the highway police for committing an infraction, but in Mexico’s jails there is no one, either innocent or guilty, with or without a knowledge of civics, moneyed or unmoneyed, who has not violated the law by bribing the authorities to allow him to make a phonecall, see his family, stop being beating up, to avoid a regression to the period of slavery with forced labor (the socalled fajina), to get a cell in prison, or just to be on the lista. From the first moments of a prison term, from the time when you ask the prison warder if you can make a phonecall –officially, they are free –you have to give a bribe. To be on the lista, you have to make a bribe. As a result, the individual has to modify his conception of law and order radically. When the motorist offers a bribe, generally speaking, though not in all cases, this is because he has committed an infraction or appears to have done so, or was about to do so. In this case, the bribe, or mordida, is patch to hide a hole, which, whether he likes it or not, has become a rule. However, in prison it is unnecessary to commit an infraction to have to bribe the authorities at any level. It is enough just to be a prisoner to enter that system of permanent extortion, where a man stops being a man and becomes a hostage, who, at all costs, tries to ingratiate himself with his masteroverseer. In fact, the socalled lista payment is the simplest and purest expression of the prison system’s delinquent character. The lista payment is the way the authorities sell protection. It is a tribute that is paid to the authorities not to avoid the penalty for committing some infraction, nor is it done to obtain some favor; it is simply the way that the inmate avoids being attacked permanently or avoids his family suffering hostilities, to prevent himself being abused even more than he is, so that he receives normal treatment, so that prisoners have the right to be maltreated as prisoners and not as a beasts. To achieve this the prisoner has to pay every day and constantly repeat his subordination to the official delinquents.
The economic basis of cruelty This cruelty in Mexico’s prisons, the bestial treatment of internees, is a mechanism used by the machine and not necessarily an end in itself. It is necessary for the system that by contrasting their negative experience, the prisoners are able to see the marvelous benefits of bribery and extortion. Rather than keeping the institution clean, the poorest internees justify the authorities in charging the fajina, by acting as a negative example, making possible the extortion of the other prisoners. For this reason, prisoners who are able to pay the prison warders to avoid the fajina are quite wrong in being insensitive to or lacking understanding of the bad treatment meted out to the poor internees, the erizos. They are wrong first of all because this insensitivity represents a lack of solidarity with their fellow prisoners –it is a part of the process of destruction of all their sentiments and values. Normally, after some days of “intensive therapy”, i.e. jail, seeing another person washing the hallway in the early morning cold or seeing them sleeping next to the excrement in the places set aside for them causes no feeling of solidarity or compassion, no expression of humanity. Such scenes and others that are even worse provoke at the most a sigh of relief and a “thank God I’m not in the same boat as them”. They are wrong in the second place, because, despite the fact that those who suffer that cruelty are the poorest prisoners, the economic object of this barbarity is aimed at lightening the wallet of those who are not so poor. It is not because those in charge of the fajina and the coordinators are psychopaths, nor because of an exaggerated sense of neatness by the authorities that the fajineros are treated like slaves, but because this cruelty is the key instrument for generalized extortion. Thus, in all the prisons, the treatment has to be brutal, starting with the prison reception center and the first stages of the institution. It is all about giving fast and profound lessons, not about discipline, not about order and obedience, but about the need for bribery and getting the prisoner to enter and become a part of that system of extortion in order to survive in the place. That is why the treatment is bestial for people with the least resources and despotic and denigrating for nearly everyone. It is so that this lesson enters the unconscious and is asserted in the individual and to ensure that he responds at other levels of the prison in the same way, even when violence and brutality are not openly involved. It would be foolish that, at the end of the 20th century, large groups of people are maltreated in order to establish or to reproduce old models of rehabilitation. The existence of slavery would be absurd if it were only used to keep the hallways and bathrooms of the prison clean, in an institution supposedly intended for lawbreakers. The real sense of this violence, maltreatment and vexation is merely to enable the others to see the tragedy befalls those who do not pay. It is a system in which the threat is carried out against
others. It is the most ignominious aspect of the cruelty unleashed against the poorest that it merely serves as a threat, a warning and a lesson to others. At such a level these lessons affect the individual’s unconscious, so that after 15 days in the prison reception center and two months in the Center for Observation and Classification, as an internee, when he hears the word lista at 8 o’clock at night he automatically gets out a 1,000peso coin or a 2,000peso note. The extortionbriberythreatsfulfilled phenomenon modifies the ideas of the internees to the extent that when prisoners ask for money from others, they usually say: lend me something for the lista. This “lend me for the lista” is the most commonly used argument in prison. Meanwhile, the “I only have enough for my lista” is the most commonly used argument to deny a request for money. Payment for the lista is treated as if it were something sacred or unquestionable, as if to give money for it were the most merciful thing you could do for the inmate who requests it. So, payment for the lista is one of the first practices that the nondelinquent or the circumstantial delinquent has to learn in the official prison delinquency if he is to survive prison. And when I say survive I do not mean this figuratively.
The readaptation of the individual to social disorder Some people say that the aim of prison is to readapt the individual to society, but that even though this be the objective, the opposite is achieved. At first sight this sounds true, although prisons are really aimed at adapting the individual to the “social project” the decaying system needs to maintain the capitalist mode of production. Today’s society is not united but divided: the society that ordinary people long for and seek, and the one that is imposed by the capitalist regime of exploitation. Today, when wellintentioned people say that prison does not readapt but “disadapts”, that it does not enable but disables, they are talking about a society which, according to their very particular point of view, should exist. When a person first arrives in prison and finds that to be a prisoner you have to pay, he immediately thinks something must be wrong, that things are upside down. The impunity in which every one of the prison system’s functionaries operate very quickly convinces him that it is not the world that is upside down but he himself, and that he had not realized that things are the opposite of what they should be. It reminds me of the joke about the drunken driver on the Periférico (the Mexico City ring road) who hearing that there is a madman driving on the wrong side of the road, says to himself, no, everyone except him, is mad and is driving on the wrong side of the road. Prison adapts the individual to accept the ruling corruption as something normal, so that the improper seems proper and the incorrect, correct, so that the individual adopts the vile compromise that arrogates itself above the principles of legality, equilibrium, justice and honor. But here in the prison is where one learns, for example, that the bribe is not a deviation, but the operative form in which this fictional order can be maintained. Prison opens the window on our social reality, on what it is, not what we believe it to be. If the individual does not arrange his mind in conformity with the rest of society, he runs the risk of perishing. This window allows us to see as clearly as required what are the true mechanisms that protect and regulate the existence of the social system. This way not only destroys the concepts formed by the individual’s family, i.e. the civic concept, but also the individual’s moral concepts. He learns that, in prison, all the principles he learned are obsolete, not only obsolete, but contrary to his own survival. This moral cynicism the prison injects into the individual is the hard ideological base by which today’s society continues to exist, with its mantel of fiction to obscure the level of decay of existing social relations. Prison also destroys all the primary concepts of legality and justice. What is most common here is that the professional delinquents, those whose lifestyle is centered on crime, only visit jail, while the circumstantial lawbreakers or the innocents serve long jailterms.
It is horrifying to see how easily those who lead a criminal lifestyle are able to leave jail, even though while they are inside they break the law, engage in drug trafficking, extortion, and murder, and beat up and rape the other inmates. This, of course, is no accident, not just their good luck. What determines the rapid freedom of some and the slow freedom of others is that the habitual lawbreakers are already a part of the system, they already know how it works, have made use of its real mechanisms before, and are now well adapted to it. It is not surprising therefore that their visit to prison is a mere setback, an occupational hazard. But where “legality and justice” are seen to be exactly the contrary is not among those who are caught and then leave, but among those who are never caught. When someone asks where can we find the delinquents who violate the laws of society most often, those who kidnap, beat people up, and rob, many times a day, the answer, of course, is that they have jobs as policemen, judges (in defense of society) or officials in any attorney’s office. If we look for the people who are most committed to drugtrafficking, we shall find them precisely among those police officials whose job is to fight drugtrafficking. The same is true if we ask ourselves who are the biggest smugglers in the country? The answer will always be the customs agents and customs officials themselves, i.e., those who, in theory, are there to prevent it. However, only exceptionally do any of the true and known delinquents of this type get thrown into jail. The wholesale delinquents, those who really do represent a social evil are paraded as models for the rest of us by capitalist society. Only the ones who are blamed end up inside to give the appearance that the system pursues and punishes crime, when the truth is the opposite.
The physical destruction of the individual Up to now, we have seen how prison destroys the individual in the world of ideas or concepts. In this respect, what happens is that one idea is destroyed and replaced by another, but what we shall look at next is the destruction of the individual without anything being given in exchange, neither good, bad nor worse. In this sense, the first thing that prison destroys is the family circle. The judge has not yet declared his final verdict, and yet a part of the victim’s family and some of his friends already make clear their intention of breaking ties with the prisoner, whether or not he is guilty, but simply because he is a prisoner. Based on the same criterion, other members of the victim’s family or the kinder friends who pardon him, offer their magnanimous support in counted drops, nearly always moral support, rather than constantly reproaching the victim about the magnificent lesson that prison supposedly represents. Of course, there is a third group of family members and friends who instinctively and boldly stand on the side of the internee while it is still possible to rescue him from the machine that destroys people. Thus the good friends and united family members divide in a flash for the prisoner, who, in the first place, directly affects their material existence, and, in the second, lights the fires of hatred and illfeeling that will never be rubbed out within the family. A mother can pardon or understand (but never justify) some offence committed against others by her son, but generally speaking she will never pardon or understand that a member of her immediate family denies her help, whatever it is, when the situation arises. In this way the individual’s links with his family are destroyed, as well as the links among the members of his family; and the same thing occurs among his friends. Former great friends become traitors in the eyes of the prison inmate, when no solid response is found from them. The memory turns to bitterness, the internee not only loses friends, but converts them into real or imagined enemies, but enemies all the same. But what most destroys the individual is the change in the relationship with his partner, his marriage, his sexual life. The physical separation between the internee and his partner serves as a catalyst in two ways –either to strengthen the marital commitment or to finish it. As prison inverts, at least in the first few moments, the matrimonial roles established by tradition, the male prisoner becomes dependent on the woman and the woman has to play the most active role, the main part in maintaining the home and sustaining the family, something that naturally invest her with greater independence.
This phenomenon, which is not entirely negative, tends to destroy the matrimonial link as time passes. The couple’s romantic feelings are based, first and foremost, on a shared experience, if they really have this. Love has a future –but if the shared experience is diluted, it is gradually extinguished. But prison gets in the way of this shared experience. The couple has to meet not when their sentiments or their hormones coincide, but at moments and in places established by rules and by the Social Workers’ Department. The couple’s shared experience is, therefore, inverted when we look at the new role the woman has to play, because, due to the incarceration of the husband, she will have to become responsible for a large part of the economic provisions. If she fulfills this role, as well as looking after the home and the family, after a short time the quality of the marital relationship will suffer. This, in the conditions of dependence, above all, those of an affective nature, which damage the individual, is interpreted as a cooling of the relationship by the inmate, who feels that he deserves more attention than he is given. He demands more from her and in this way pushes things in a direction that will end in conflict. From there to the jealousy syndrome is just a step. The conflicts resulting from fair or unfair demands worsen the relationship even more, and if the two people are not mature and balanced, these may destroy it completely, and in a large proportion of cases this does indeed happen, or is one of the things that happens. On the other hand, even in the purely sexual aspect, the tension to which both partners are submitted impedes pleasurable relations –nothing erotic can occur in having sexual relations after being searched at the checkin, given the uncertainty of the place in which it takes place.
The destruction of abilities and skills There is nothing more destructive for the mind or the emotional state of the prisoner than the time he has to wait around with nothing to do. Thus, as the punishment cells have reached the point where the prolonged solitude and silence cost lives, so prison as a whole , however ample and “free” it may appear becomes a massive punishment cell where impotence and lack of communication destroy the individual more slowly. Although prison makes human relationships possible, those relationships are necessarily sick from the start. Interpersonal communications are corrupted by mental fixations, the individual is obsessed by two or three points of reality: When do I get out? How is my family? What am I going to eat? It is unlikely that there will be other subjects for conversation, given the tension in which he lives. The codes and symbols are continually repeated in communication, in a process that could be parodied by the dog that tries to bite its own tail. Thus the constant need to escape, from that which can make people psychotic (or more psychotic than they already are), or into drug addicts of some kind, either the classic cigarettes or alcohol, or derivatives of heroin and cocaine. In time, these escape routes feed back into the destruction of his initiative and his emotional integrity, adding to it a process of destruction of his own bodily and mental health. Those in prison who do not fall into the drug trap are not necessarily safe. They are usually substituted by other things, perhaps less damaging to the health, though, at the same time, destructive of the will and of initiative. Thus prisoners seize on manias, religions, sex or television. These become a substitute for productive activity, so that over time the individual’s skills and abilities become atrophied and he becomes accustomed to routine and to activities that destroy his own personality. This entire process is imperceptible for those who suffer it. Gradually, the individual is being defeated, although, like poison gas, this cannot be seen. Nevertheless, his intuitions let him know it is taking place. The material basis for this process of destruction is the ability of the authorities to obstruct any possibility of healthy and productive activity. On arriving in prison, the individual has two choices –to pay for the fajina, so that he will not have another thing to do and will find himself in a terrible and degrading idleness, full of worries, or to do the fajina and engage in a terrible and degrading job full of uncertainty. As can be seen, these two plates contain the same soup. Also, it has been officially determined that, during the first stage of prison life, i.e. Ingreso and the C.O.C., internees will carry out no activity, thus violating the most elementary human rights.
Those who do manage to carry on productive and positive activities at this stage of imprisonment, generally have nothing to thank the authorities for, but manage to do so despite the 1,001 fetters imposed on them. After this process, which can last an average of two months, the internee arrives at the dormitories, where there are more opportunities for occupation, as long as he has paid for his dormitory fajina, or has worked the fajina for at least 15 days. The activities the internee can carry out are usually marginal, and virtually 100% based on his own initiative, understanding and means. In fact, the prisoner receives no real support from the authorities, except the favor they do him by giving him a “memorandum” recognizing his services but nothing else. The authorities’ efforts to ensure that prison is not a punishment but a means by which the offender has the possibility of restructuring his damaged personality to live in society and not just return to cause damage there, but instead do good and become productive, can be seen clearly from the following figures presented in Mexico City’s Reclusorio Norte in December, 1991: For every internee who takes part in the institution’s workshops, 40 do not. One in every 13 prisoners continues his uncompleted primary, secondary and high school studies or learns to read. One in every 17 prisoners receives work training in the training center. One in every 47 studies languages. One in every 16 prisoners attends socalled auxiliary treatment (religious congregations and Alcoholics Anonymous). If we bear in mind that a large proportion of people take part in several of these activities, the obligatory question is: Apart from the commissioners, what are the others doing? They are necessarily engaging in marginal activities, or are training themselves despite the authorities, or learning –or confirming –their criminal knowledge. Under these conditions, the muchproclaimed readaptation of the individual to society is just another utopian idea from people of goodwill, and a grotesque hoax by the authorities who should be ensuring that it takes place. All the productive abilities the individual may already have had when he was taken captive become atrophied through lack of use; those individual may actually learn inside are marginal in the best of cases, and criminal in the worst. If someone learns to be a thief in jail, he may become one outside it, but it is not this kind of training that is needed. Nor does it serve society that people are trained for years in jail as fajineros or as estafetas, or as lunchcounter attendants. And I don’t know how productive for society it might be that at the end of the 20th century thousands of people are being trained to make arts and crafts, which will, of course, increase the informal market and are hard to sell outside the family orbit.
Conclusions If the true object of prison is to destroy the individual and transform him into another virus of the cancer known as “social order”, or if this doesn’t work, destroy him mentally or physically, that is not always achieved. Naturally, the prisoners wage a constant struggle against the process of destruction. However, it should not be concluded from this that prison should be “perfected”. On the one hand, this is impossible; on the other, the most perfect of prisons is essentially no less destructive than the others. The illusions of the democrats who would make prison into a castle of purity, equality and democracy are, in a society that is so corrupt and unequal, just that: illusions. Prison is just an xray of the aberrations, injustice and level of decay of the society that requires it. An island of legality, justice and honesty in an ocean of capitalist putrefaction has no future. Moreover, by the time the directors of a prison are sacked, the officials who replace them are already up to the same tricks. All the improvements and corrections to the prison system which are achieved at the expense of sacrifices and sometimes the life of some inmate, are reversed after a few days of having been installed. Mexico’s prisons return naturally to the sheepfold of perdition, basically because they are part of a lost society. Perfumed napkins and nice magazines are of little use in cleaning the Augean stables. As time goes by, the authorities get used to this and become more cynical about things. As corruption and degeneration are intrinsic products of capitalism, the real solution to the problems of the prisons appears to be the transformation of the entire society. Until this happens, we cannot deny that the two tendencies within society also confront each other in the prisons, or that individual and organized resistance to the sewer society’s project, i.e. the sewerprison, have seen constant victories in recent months, and that over some periods have resulted in some real cleaning up and respect for the human dignity of the prisoners. To some extent, this vies with the prison’s destructive character. In particular, it is true that the State, in the present situation, needs modern prisons where the money remains in its hands and does not leak into the hands of various officials. Corruption is an excretion reeking with the ruling relations of production. It also functions as a way of rewarding “company men” for their complicity and fidelity. However, corruption is not the basis of their power and even leads to inefficiency. Above all, the modernization of the penitentiary apparatus in recent years is to a certain extent, if not openly induced, at least easily adjusted to. The State is trying to clean its Augean stables, not with its own hands, but with those of the prisoners. If something goes wrong, the officials who are involved will keep their hands clean, while those who will pay for the broken plates will be the internees. If things go well, the officials who are involved will have fulfilled their commitment. This might be called getting the chestnuts out of the fire with the cat’s paw.
Despite these dangers, the prison is now facing the capitalist social project against the interests of the majority of the population. Nevertheless, the struggle must go on. The first thing to learn is that prison, however cruel, hard, inhumane and evil it is, is something that is possible to survive. We should also understand that despite the brickwall attitude of the authorities, the prisoners are still determined to defend their own dignity –we are the majority and the true force of the prison. Up to now, and historically this has been the case in most of the prisons, the prisoners fall into the trap of accepting the different and perverse moral premises which the authorities wish to impose: “in here you have no friends, no prisoner has the balls to be a man, don’t bother about injustice as long as it doesn’t affect you, and if they hit you just put up with it”. We have to reject all of these antivalues or they will end up by destroying us. In a struggle over many years, and which has cost lives, the internees have won spaces of liberty and human dignity inside the prisons, and the authorities, to the extent that they listen to what is said about human rights, reply slyly: “yes, yes, get rid of their cellphones, their televisions, if they have them, no more visits without a pass”. In their shrunken and deformed minds they cannot conceive that this blackmailer attitude can only trick the most backward prisoners and that they can only brandish their arguments at those who are really committed to corruption. Those who have been prisoners before us, have demonstrated that in prison it is possible to find true friends and that solidarity does indeed exist. They have shown that the correct road is not to lose our capacity to be indignant in the face of injustice and that it is always possible to do something, because we are only prisoners –we are not completely crippled. All those films, talks, articles and books that paint prison as an inferno are wrong. Prison is worse than that, but as I have mentioned above, it is possible to survive, and it is possible to leave it with dignity. We can and we must make this set of gears that consumes people into a place of reflection, rather than a place where people go around in circles trying to rationalize things. A place of preparation, not one where our faculties are atrophied, a place of improvement, not personal degradation, a place in which friendship and love for the family can be strengthened, where people meet and struggle together. In sum, impeding the destruction of our dignity by this machinery, we must come out and help civil society to put an end to its abominations.
Detention3 * “You are Guillermo Mota Marin?” “Yes, sir.” They pull me by my hair and beat me: I know not why. They push me into the car and tell me: “ Now you are going to tell us why you raped your stepdaughter, you filthy wretch.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I tell them. “Don’t know, eh? O.K., then we’ll fuck you up properly, you stupid Indian.” He gets a pistol out and sticks it against my head. I am scared stiff, wondering when they will kill me. I am trembling with fear and the car starts. When it arrives at the Coyocacán4** police station they pull me out, push me into a corner and start beating me up. Then they tell me: “Empty your pockets.” “I only have my identity card and my money.” “Get the money out –it’s for us.” One of them takes the money from me, 400,000 pesos. He tells me: “If you go telling the agente del Ministerio Público that we took your money, it’ll cost you your life. You don’t know who we are. Tonight you’ll find out.” At around 10 p.m. a doctor comes in to check me up. He tells me to take off my clothing. All he does is look at me and then off he goes. After that, at about 12 a.m., the agente del Ministerio Público arrives and asks me: “What are you accused of?” “Sir, I don’t know what I am accused of.” “Are you saying you don’t want to say anything now?” “Sir, first I want to find my brothers Odilon and Máximo.” “No. You must make your statement now.” I am taken to an office. I say that what they have accused me of is untrue. Then the policemen bash me on the head, which still hurts me a lot as I write. After that, the agente del Ministerio Público tells me: “Sign this paper!” 3
* Guillermo Mota Marin, a Mazateco Indian, learned to write in Mexico City’s Reclusorio Norte, in October 199*. At the time of writing, Mr. Mota Marin is incarcerated in the Santa Martha Acatitla prison. 4 ** Coyoacan is a delegación, or administrative district, in the southern part of Mexico City.
“I don’t know how to write, Sir.” He hits me again, in the stomach and in the head, and threatens me: “You filthy fucking Indian! Sign this paper right now, because if you don’t, we’ll give you some electric shocks.” After that, a man arrives and says: “I am your defense lawyer.” “Sir, I didn’t rape my stepdaughter.” “How much money have you got, so we release you right now?” “Why should I pay if I didn’t rape my stepdaughter. At that moment, the policemen hit me again and one of them says: “Listen carefully to what I’m going to say you filthy Indian. If you change your declaration, when you get to the Reclusorio, we are much more powerful there, and we’ll fuck you in. It’s better that you say what you signed. If you don’t, you know what to expect.”
In Reno with the beasts5* Welcome: 9:30 a.m. We arrive in front of an enormous metal door. Several members of the zorros police corps open it and a terrible nightmare begins. “Get out quick!” –these were the words of welcome. “Up against the wall!” “Legs open!” Two or three zorros check us, while the others aim their guns at us –exactly why, I don’t know. They take us through to checkin. “Off with your clothes!” says an nastylooking character –“The lot!” After a thorough search of all the pockets and hems they tell us: “Now, put them all on again!” Those of us who arrived with watches and nice jackets never see them again. Minutes later, we arrive at Ingreso. They take us to “play piano”, i.e. have our fingerprints taken. All day we have to stand against the wall like punished children. I was thinking that by nighttime I would be able to get some sleep, but I didn’t know what was going to happen: 27 of us sleep –if you can call it that –in a cell measuring 2.5 by 3 meters, like sardines in a tin. One person who is close to the grating is complaining because the smell is unbearable. Sweat, dreadful dirty feet. People held for more than a week incommunicado in the PJDF’s cells, and who have not therefore been able to take a bath, putting their dirty feet on my face and on other people’s faces. One is sleeping on the toilet and several are sleeping while they stand. One of my cell colleagues has attached himself to the bars, while standing up, by tying his own clothes around them. This goes on for a week. Once I have got to know some of the people, they inform me that tonight I will be moved to the Center for Observation and Classification (COC). There, some pieces of cardboard and a couple of pairs of trousers serve as my mattress and pillow for several days. Someone had commented in Ingreso that the COC was a much better place, but I have never found anything good there. I spent several days wandering around corridors. When rancho is served, you have to run to line up. From previous visits, in the rubbish thrown on the ground, or in the bins, one can find disposable plates or polystyrene mugs –these are the most valuable crockery you can have, but you have to look after them as if they were treasure. You can’t lend them out, because if you do, * Reno is an abbreviation for Reclusorio Norte. This is José Luis Avalos Trinidad’s testimony.
when you arrive get your next rancho (ration of food), where there are more corridors and gardens, you will have nothing to eat off. After some time, I don’t know how, I manage to find a plastic plate and mug which last me quite a while. But as there is always someone to take advantage of a situation, they are robbed and I have to look again for a disposable mug and plate so that I can carry on eating the rubbish they serve up for food. Thus pass three months sleeping in bathrooms or corridors where whenever it occurs to them, the heads of the fajina go to charge you for sleeping in a bathroom with more than 60 people, some of whom have not had a bath in weeks. Life in the COC bathrooms is like a novel. The walls are covered in pictures of nude women alternated with religious images, very torn or blackened by the smoke from the lamps. There is always a lamp that catches fire. Someone has a radio on at full volume with a horrible sound called salsa. It always happens that someone complains, but all he gets is a is a punch from the owner of the radio. Well, that’s very common in prison –your arm or leg gets broken and no one knows anything, because here anyone who says or knows is a dead man, and so nobody knows anything, so that nothing happens to them. What is this thing they call prison? What use is it? I don’t know. But I believe that it affects each individual in a different way. Some become robots, others thieves, potential murderers, suicides, homosexuals. It leaves some in economic misery, although it also helps you to think … for better or for worse. Most go in a negative direction, or in the best of cases they look for compassion from other people, which in itself is quite negative. Will it be possible to think about something else here that isn’t prison? Is there anything here that’s really worth the trouble? I can never forget the three months I spent in the COC. It was just hunger, cold and humiliation. All of the most horrible solitudes I have ever experienced couldn’t compare with the solitude I felt there. The body, the mind and the soul get used to everything, but not to those first three months. Walking down the corridors of the Reclusorio I could see halfdressed people, with their clothes in shreds, begging for money to cover their lista payments or for cigarettes or any other vice. People with glass eyes, with scars on their faces or bodies, with or without some mutilation on their body, with their hair in filthy clumps carrying barrels of rubbish or doing errands for a few pence. To live in such company opened our eyes to the reality in which we lived. Prison is not a place for readapting people –it is quite the contrary. Here, those who do not “disadapt” are the ones who stick to the principles taught them by their parents –those who think that they should not have an image or a character different from what was forged before. Only they survive as people –never thanks to prison, but always despite it.
Reclusorio Norte, November 7, 1991 It is 9 p.m. The inmates in the COC annex have spent a lot of time standing in a line on the esplanade in the cold, waiting for the lista to be read out. At some point, above the murmurs, a warder is heard exclaiming something angrily to one of the inmates in the line: “What do you mean 500 pesos? You know it’s 1,000”. From the warder’s expression it would seem that his own life hung on the difference of 500 pesos. His attitude would be incomprehensible in any other situation, except prison. His cacharro, a metal can, is already full of 1,000peso coins and 2,000peso notes. The cacharro must already contain about 150,000 pesos, the product of the lista collected from the other inmates. But his attitude makes one think that his family will not be able to eat because of those 500 pesos. Blushing and worried, the inmate replies holding his head to one side, his eyes staring out into space: “Yes, sir, but it’s all I have.” On hearing this, the warder twists his body angrily and orders the other inmates to play malla, a sadistic game in which the victim is kicked and beaten by each of the other prisoners, one by one –the warders’ most uptotheminute invention. The inmate, much more worried now, is led to the warder who is even angrier. The inmate begs: “But it’s all I have. I’ll give it to you next time, eh?” “Don’t fuck with me! It’s double that now.” “O.K. Then I’ll give you nothing,” the inmate dares to reply in a flash of dignity. “Like fuck you will!” The warder accompanies his response with a horizontal punch of his fist in the mouth of the inmate. A trickle of blood starts to move from the man’s trembling lips. The surprise punch throws him to the ground where the warder cruelly tramples on him. Not one inmate moves from his position. Moments later, comes the following warning: “Don’t complains or you’ll be fucked.”
The Center for Observation and Classification (COC) I JulySeptember, 1990 In the Center for Observation and Classification building, known as the COC, the deterioration of the cubicles used for personality studies is crystal clear. Water is leaking, although the flooding only occasionally stops the technical area’s daily work, but the latter gives it little importance. Attempts to solve the problem with layers of waterproofing and pitch are useless. Now, along with the water leaks stalactites of pitch are starting to hang from the ceilings. The prison management establishes the line to be followed. Prisoners who are condemned to do the fajinero have to bail out the oozing water. For three months this situation forms a part of the day’s work. OctoberNovember, 1990 The water that is oozing out has now changed color –it is dark. The COC fajineros make a diagnosis: “over the cubicles are the apandos, where there are toilets. As there are no waterpipes, the water drips directly down”. The flooding is more intense. The prisoners say: “the tubes and the drainage are in a dreadful condition. Most of the cells suffer from this problem –i.e., it’s not just the technical area that gets flooded”. December, 1990 Now dirty water is slowly dripping into the cubicles. The smell is the same as in the technical area. Some of the inmates have begun to show symptoms of intestinal illness. JanuaryMay, 1991 The situation is worse. It is like working in a gigantic septic tank. The rate of the leaks is now faster than the rate at which the fajineros can work. The passageways are now permanently flooded. The disgusting penetrating smell leads to nausea and indignation. Cynically, some officials blame the prison population, calling them “pigs”. They cannot understand that this area is inadequate for realizing their necessary and vital activities. However, the overcrowding of COC inmates is notorious. The overpopulation is extreme due to the pathetic planning and the internal corruption that exists. Who cares if a cell designed to hold three prisoners is made to hold 16? Who cares about the fact that for a floating population of some 600 inmates in the COC not a single shower is available? Who cares that 60 people spend the night together like sardines alongside human excrement and in a place where there should be showers?
COC II With a floating population of 600 people, the Center for Observation and Classification is the most overpopulated part of the Reclusorio. If this population were to be distributed among the 96 existing cells, each would be occupied by 6 inmates. But corruption has established another absurd reality. While 5 out of the 8 zones in the COC, which contain 60 out of a total of 96 cells (or 62.5% of the available space) are occupied by less than 50 people who have paid millions of pesos for them, some of whom occupy more than one cell (kitchen, dining room and bedroom), 3 zones containing 36 cells (or 37.5% of the available space) have to house 550 prisoners. In other words, each cell –which is designed to house 3 prisoners –has to house 15 prisoners. Official corruption has found a solution to this problem: within the second group of zones, 12 cells in zone 2 and 12 in zone 3 will each be occupied by 8 persons who will pay the Tio Mafias 25,000 pesos a week for the privilege of not having to inhabit a cell full of 15 people. Thus, these two zones together will be occupied by a total of 192 people. That still leaves 360 internees to be housed. Zone 1 of the second group contains two cells, and eventually 3, but these will be permanently occupied by the apando or punishment cell. With 10 cells left, zone 4 [pero tu refieres solamente a 3 zonas en el segundo grupo] houses about 150 prisoners, i.e. 15 per cell [15 por celda], each of whom pays the Tio Mafias between 10,000 and 15,000 pesos a week. More than 200 prisoners are left. These prisoners are left to live in 4 bathrooms and will each have to pay 5,000 pesos a week to the abovementioned Tío Mafias for the right to sleep in the toilets alongside human feces. As the bathrooms are used as dormitories, more than 550 inmates have nowhere to take a bath, and therefore have to make do with cups of water in their cells. But the problems of having a bath, especially for the poorest inmates, the erizos, who number more than 200, and have no cells, lead to a permanent lack of hygiene, making them carriers of such parasites as fleas, bugs, and lice. For this reason, three days a week (which are not visiting days), the 96 cells of the COC are flooded with buckets of water and soap to prevent the proliferation of these parasites. So every Monday, Wednesday and Friday the cells are flooded because there is no drainage for this kind of cleaning. To complete this, in the 60 cells that are paid for and occupied by padrinos, bathtubs have been installed, for which there are no drainoff pipes, just the ducts situated on the roof of the technical area, which also have no outflow pipes. Privileges, sinecures, corruption, extortion, ineptitude are the real and direct causes that make what should be a place where personalities are studied into a place where personalities are lost.
Down the slippery slope Some people smoke their first marijuana cigarette in prison or become gluesniffers; from being ordinary people they become worthless specimens who trail their humanity behind them through the corridors of the Reclusorio, making themselves available for whatever they can do to obtain a little money for their daily “dose”. But it is not only the drugs that destroy. Here, you begin to get a sense of people who are not people but objects, to whom the warders and the cabos de la fajina can do what they wish without restrictions. José Velazco is a typical example of this process. He arrived at the same time as I did, in October. I met him in reception as the lista was being read, where they had us standing stupidly for 3 or 4 hours in the patio. From that point on he was beaten because he was mentally challenged. Regularly, the lista time the warder shouts the name and first surname and the inmate has to scream out his second surname and move from the line he is in to another. José Velazco [s o z?] always did this wrong –sometimes he replied, “present”, at other times he did not hear or didn’t recognize his name, sometimes he wasn’t sure and asked, “Is that me?”, as if there were many others with the same name. Every mistake meant a blow on his head, kicks, beatings with cudgels. After many beatings, he chose to go from one line to another without saying anything, because he never could understand what it was the warder wanted, nor why everything had to be as he said. The result was more beatings. The warder hit him, the cabos de la fajina hit him and the prison population went for him on his way down –not only did they make a fool of him, but they never stopped pushing him around. His journey through the COC was no less cruel. In the lista line, the erizos constantly hit him with the warders’ manguerazos, or the cabos de la fajina beat him. His limited education, his ingenuousness and his candidness, his face always with a smile, made him a target for projectiles, taunts and jabs. One day, a cabo de la fajina, one of the Tio Mafias’ sidekicks, beat a group of inmates on their backsides with a plank, to such a degree that it left marks on their bodies for a long time afterwards. Only José Velazco complained to the warder and from then on the fury of the cabos de la fajina against him intensified. They put it around that he was chiva –with all that this epithet implies in prison. A chiva has a highrisk life in prison. After that, his life became hard, very hard. His fajina –which should have been ended –was prolonged indefinitely. I happened to see the man who was then head of security, Oliver, beat him savagely for being found close to a group of prisoners who were smoking marijuana.
Before this we were able to talk together and on one occasion I wrote a letter for him where he basically said: “Carmela, when are you coming to make love with me? Here I am in prison. Say hello to…” He always asked me for a cigarette and I never had one. He was a good bloke and was imprisoned for a stupid offense. Yesterday, I met him in the reception apando. Now he doesn’t understand what you say to him, he doesn’t recognize people and he is totally detached from reality. If he has not already lost his mind completely, he is not far from doing so. I don’t know why he is in the apando but his head was beaten very badly, so was face, and his look is one of astonishment and incomprehension, drawn back, as if he expects another blow from which he will not be able to defend himself.
One who fell It was a foggy afternoon and in the laboratory of the Reclusorio school center the dead body of a fellow prisoner was hanging. Mario Martínez Martínez arrived at the Reclusorio Preventiva Norte in August, 1990. From his arrival his world changed radically and he could not adapt to it. Mario was affected from the start by an environment that was too hostile for his gentle character: he was raped, beaten and intimidated. Presumed guilty of fraud involving a billion pesos, he was the ideal victim for what is known in prison as renteo, i.e., a system of extortion in which a prisoner is murdered if he does not regularly pay over a large sum of money. Everything he had was used up for the renteo, not just his gentle character –not bothering anyone, i.e. those who knew him –but also his short stature and his build, which rather than being muscular tended towards fatness –he did absolutely no physical exercise. He had no tough friends who could defend him, and his family gradually abandoned him during the nearly 10 months of his stay in prison. His economic position did not correspond to the image he wanted give of himself: he arrived smoking “Benson and Hedges” and in the last few months was smoking “Delicados” and “Faritos” (the cheapest cigarettes in Mexico). In his final weeks he ate rancho and sometimes didn’t eat at all. He was pretentious, but could not hide his real self. I don’t really know if he did commit the fraud he was accused of, but what is certain is that he was made to pay for the crime. In other words he was the scapegoat of a felony that others committed, as most of the people in the Reclusorio are. If he actually did it, he certainly could not make any use of the money, or else he hid this very well. It is the practice of some who are not professional frauds to pretend that by living in misery in the prison they can mislead the enemy. Sooner or later, they find out that survival in prison is more important than simulation. I sincerely believe that he did not have the money he is supposed to have gained by fraud. He stayed eight months in reception, protected against the constant aggression he was subjected to, and finally he was allocated to a dormitory. Here, again, the machine that destroys people vented its anger against him, this time it was the institutional part of the machine that came into play. As he was supposed to have committed fraud, his correct allocation should have been dormitory 4, but that’s just the theory. In reality, most prisoners are allocated to the wrong dormitories where their situation is difficult, so they have to give some kind of recompense to the person in charge of allocation, i.e. the head of the COC, in order to be reallocated to a dormitory that is more in line with their personal profile and the crime they are supposed to have committed.
To get into dormitory 4 means paying out anything between 2 million and 18 million pesos. Those who have the money pay it, those who don’t conform and later adapt … or live in constant anxiety. This is what happened to Mario. He spent a few weeks in dormitory 8, but most of his time was spent in reception, as mentioned above. However, although dormitory 8 is not one of the worst, the situation for him was hardly more tolerable. Some days before his death he was badly beaten up. At the autopsy, the marks must have been seen on his abdomen and his head. But, clearly, it was more convenient for the authorities that these marks were not seen and that everything pointed to a typical suicide. A colleague told me some years ago that suicide is society’s perfect crime against some of its members. The environment murders them and there is no crime to prosecute. But in the prison system this perfect crime is perceived as it is, in all its clarity. In this hermetic place, the gears and levers of the machine for killing people are out in the open without any kind of camouflage or embellishment. In particular, Mario was murdered by the renteo system and it doesn’t matter whether the same people who collected rent from him (or tried to collect rent from him) killed him and presented his death as a suicide, or on the contrary, he killed himself because he was overwhelmed by the threats and beatings of which he was the object. There is no effect without a cause, and the direct cause of his death was undoubtedly this savage mechanism of extortion that is typical of Mexico’s prisons. Whether he or others tied the knot is not important, the effect was the same. I don’t know how brilliant he was as a high school teacher of Literary Analysis at the Reclusorio Norte, but at 25 years of age this native of Tamaulipas (a northern border state) deserved a better future. The machine that destroys people implacably fulfilled its commitment to a decadent society, which –like primitive cultures –uses the prisons for human sacrifice to exorcize the corruption and degeneration that can no longer be eradicated, and which, at the same time, are two of its most typical products. It is true and we can assert that currently the prisons do not regenerate anyone, but pulverize men and women who have been selected as scapegoats of the existing social disorder. Thus the judges and policemen, the officials, lawyers and other prominent members of society are to be congratulated: another of your scapegoats has been destroyed. Rest in peace.
Published on May 7, 2014
Prison is one of those places you don’t understand until you’ve been through it. Thanks to the joint efforts of judges, pol...