The Iquitos Prison occupies twenty acre surrounded by a 12´concrete wall with four corner turrets that rise like rooks over the denuded jungle within. Eight pavilions house 160 prisoners each for a total of 1300 while forty guards stroll the garden patched complex to keep order. The prison uniform is street clothes but long pants only, while the guards sport tight black T-shirts inscribed INPE in gold on the back. They are armed with .45´s.
On my last day in Peru I visited the prison, first stopping across the street to rent long pants and a dress shirt for $1.00 for admittance. I turned to face the prison entrance, an arched gateway with a short line of visitors.
Inside this walled town inmates are indistinguishable from citizens outside who at any moment may end up right here due to the evil Amazon mothers-in-law and the crooked court system that convicts on bribes and rarely justice. You are put here and kept here depending on your pocketbook, not the crime. The four main convictions in order are sex crimes, drugs, robbery and last fighting. After talking with about one hundred prisoners today I will conclude that half are innocent and nearly all have overextended sentences as the system and their ex-girlfriends slowly squeeze money out of them over the days and years.
Some of the very females in the visitor´s line batting eyes in front and behind me, who lied in the first place to thrust their boyfriends here, and now of legal age, visit each Sunday to draw the curtains before the bunks. Each is paid for sex and, anticlimactically, the boyfriend urges her to retract the original rape charge.
The queue of fifty visitors, lovers, contraband runners and Sunday ministers moves quickly with eight at a time admitted through a ten-foot iron gate in the wall. Then there´s a pause at each of five stations where guards copy identification information, a green chicken imprint is stamped on my right forearm, at the next pause a visitor number is drawn in yellow magic marker below the chicken, at the next another black number 3-16 who is the prisoner I´m fated to visit, at the ensuing a beautifully engraved chit # 43 is traded for my passport photocopy, as I keep my original taped to my side that soon escapes a quick frisk at the final station.
The chit and number penned in red at the bottom of my arm journal prove I´m a visitor rather than convict and I´m told to return in five hours by 2pm or spend the night in the Crossbar Hotel. A pleasant guard in black and gold points me to a plank path across a muddy field to Pavilion 3 to ask for Ruso, the only gringo inmate in the entire complex. I briskly walk the wood plank expecting to find an Italian in for drug smuggling, and a guard politely steps off the one lane into the mud to let me pass, tipping his hat, and pointing ahead for ´Ruso´.
After walking the plank, the guard at Pavilion Gate 3 reads my arm moving his lips, pulls the single skeleton key to unlock the ancient lock, it opens with a creak, and locks behind me. I march a dim aisle like an alley on a moonlit night with open door cells on either side as inmates stare stunned, gape and a few cup their hands to mouths whooping, ´Ruso!´
I turn into Cell 16 and am surprised as a shaggy head pops out from the bed screen, giant bare feet hit the floor, and a huge hand envelops mine with a hardy ´PriVet´ (Hello!) in Russian. This is Ruso, which I quickly learn is Spanish for Russian rather than his name, though he is known throughout the system as Ruso.
A solitary black chess pawn sits on the desk in front of his bed as a clear invitation that I ignore for the moment. Our conversation is in Spanish as he speaks little English.
Ruso exports wood, and has lived in Lima for six years. One year ago he and his brother arrived in the heart of the Amazon at Iquitos to search for wood. His brother got in a fight with three men and bested them, and was subsequently arrested for beating a man to the pulp. Ruso was not at the fight but his crime in Peru is being the brother of the man who fled to avoid trail to Russia. In the perverse Peruvian court system Ruso was put behind bars to serve his brother´s aggravate assault sentence of three years. Before coming to Lima to start the wood business he earned an economy degree, is keen eyed, moves purposely with a royal bearing, twenty-eight, powerfully built, and no worry lines on a square face that begs a shave and haircut.
We make short small talk for he´s anxious to introduce me to the Teacher whom he claims will open every nook of the prison, even places I don’t want to go.
First, we tour his Pavilion, or concrete blockhouse with two flights of stairs and long cement halls connecting about twenty cells with eight beds each that are flung open each morning. Each 30´ square room has one toilet and shower, and each inmate has painted his space with a personal color scheme and hung posters of politicians, scantily clad girls or his own artwork. Ruso´s space is glossy white, tidy like the others, and stacked with non-fiction books on economics, nature and biographies from the block library.
We amble to the Block core that hems a 30´ x 60´ concrete soccer area alive with kicks and shouts over a deflated excuse of a soccer ball. Around the mini-field a dozen inmates run picnic table cafe´s, gambling rings, a crafts shop and barber shop. Prisoners whittle and fashion knickknacks, some paint, and others design or patch clothes to barter or sell to each other to eke a living. A weight lifting area with bars through concrete blocks as dumbbells and barbells gets constant use as many inmates are heavily muscled like Mastiffs. A rousing sermon well attended by forty hand clapping, foot stomping inmates screams through the windows over the soccer field. The scene is a sort of Eden in the Sunday morning sunshine away from the dank cells. It is hardly different from outside the walls except for the thick iron locks.
An 8-foot chain link fence with razor wire hugs the Pavilion with one gate to liberty to roam the twenty acres compound… and enter, if you can afford a ticket at each gate, the other seven Pavilions. It´s a macabre Disneyland. The chief guard at each gate, not his helper screw, has a key, for he has worked the system for years to attain this commanding post to accept or snub bribes to admit or refuse anyone to his Pavilion. So prisoners are free to walk within their own walled blocks in daytime, are locked in their cells from 10pm to 6am, and may leave the same way visitors enter, by bribing the guard chiefs.
´Money talks inside,´ Ruso quips and winks, adding, ´You are my guest,´ and palms the equivalent of $2 with a hand pump to the guard chief at the exit. It is a large sum where outside the minimum wage is $1 an hour. The guard pockets the money, claps Ruso on the back, and opens the gate to exit Pavilion 3 onto the main grounds where the other six pavilions and turrets reach to the sky like War of the Worlds. Few prisoners see this for years because of the price.
We pass Pavilion 2 adjacent to the prison perimeter wall where the last prison escape attempt in 2007 failed when the guards allowed via bribes a 19-inch diameter, 30-meter tunnel to be dug for six months from inside the Block and under the wall to the street, and then swooped in for the capture of 35 escapees. The breakthrough day that Peru´s national soccer team was to play the first qualifying round of the World Cup was smartly timed thinking the guards would be watching the soccer game and not tending to their posts, but someone squealed.
We slip into the carpenter shop within a 20-meter square hut with a log saw to cross-section and cut planks, planer and other equipment. Ruso brushes his hand gently across the wood like a lover´s cheek, explaining that he spends a lot of time here filling orders for civilians for tables, chests and beds. They´re custom crafted and picked up on visitor´s day. It would also be a tight place to hollow a log or furniture leg to store or transport contraband.
On reaching Pavilion 4 that resembles and is minimum security like Ruso´s Block, he pulls the chief guard aside to grease his palm while I chat with the backup screw who informs that the two guards per Pavilion gate work 24 hours straight, and then are off for two days. He avows the turnkeys prefer this arrangement that requires them to work only ten days a month. Each of the dozen guard´s I´ve bumped into is savvy, amicable toward the prisoners and me and, according to my tour guide, on the take. The chief gives him a big bear hug, shakes my hand, and admits us into the Block. We search the bobbing heads on a concrete cafeteria floor that fills the core area instead of soccer. Five cafes and as many pushcart vendors do a bustling business as prisoners chat, play cards and board games as if at Starbucks. This is a more affluent crowd with many seniors, and I´m tipped it is the white color crime Block.
One graying man with twinkling eyes holds an erect posture that stands out so brightly that I inquire of him. He is the former Pevas Mayor, a large jungle town downriver one day by boat, where he was convicted four years ago of accepting money while in office, and for some reason has chosen not to or cannot afford to bribe the court for a get-out-of-jail card. I was told that anyone with a non-violent crime may pay via an attorney to the court about $3000 for quick release, or $10,000 for the worst crime.
The majority of the men are sex criminals, or better termed victims, serving an average ten years for having an affair with an underage (17 years or below) girl; or twenty years for so-called rape. One man I speak to has spent a month short of twenty years inside for having sex with a drunken legal age girl who told police and testified in court that he raped her. He will be released in one month and is anxious for freedom. A few other men tell me, yes, they had sex with a teenage girl like most other Peruvian males, but that the mothers-in-law came at them with claws bribing the police for arrest unless they paid the girl´s family a queenly sum. They cannot afford that game and end up skewered in the penal system.
Ruso spots and yells over the mill to the Teacher. A shout back, and a tall thin man with spectacles above a perpetual smile weaves to draw the Russian´s hand and, on learning that I not only speak but have taught English, clears the floor with a jig. He is respected inside as the official English instructor- the guards address him in English as Teacher- with thirty students in all eight Blocks whom he charges pocket change. He picked up a little English in his youth as a jungle guide, strengthened it inside by reading books, and I am the first person who speaks better whom he has met in three of his six year sentence for having sex with a 16-year-old minor. There was leniency since she was his steady girlfriend that he planned to marry until she brought up the rape charge.
Ruso buys the Teacher a coffee and me lemonade, and on finishing suggests that we walk outside around the yard. Teacher bows his head in shame admitting he cannot afford the standard $1 bribe to leave the Block, but Ruso tells him not to be silly, that Teacher is our guide and the Russian foots the bill.
On swinging gaits with new elbow room we saunter the twenty acre compound, greeting ´Hola´ to the guards and ´Buenas´ to inmate gardeners of little jungle patches outside the Pavilions. Then past a tangle of construction equipment and abandoned bunkers from years gone by to the maximum security Block. .
In maximum men are stripped of their faculties by drugs and time served and so sadly are seen to their core, ragtag and clawing the chain link fence thrusting bubblegum and trinkets at me for coins to support their habits. They beg and alternately roar like lions. ‘You are dangerous!’ the Russian scolds them cheerfully, and then whispers to me, ‘Do you want to go inside?´’
‘Sure,’ I reply, and we turn the fence corner past the frantic men to the Sergeant with the key in to their cage.
It is a din inside. The halls are littered with men sitting sleeping with their foreheads on their knees and gum wrappers. Only six inmates watch TV, hardly any smoke cigarettes due to the cost, many sell candy or dirty girl sketches for change to fill out their emaciated frames or empty minds. The Block houses a younger crowd with strained faces, wild eyed, and doomed to spend decade sentences for crimes of violence, usually robbery or rape.
An atypically rotund middle-aged inmate with accountant eyes seeks out Ruso like a viper, wraps his arms like an anaconda around him and all the while narrows his eyes at me. The alert Russian squeezes him back hard, nods okay at me, and the man releases and smiles warmly. I get the feeling he believes I’m there to buy something, which is fixed when he introduces himself as the prison drug kingpin. Willie Sutton said he went to banks because ´That’s where the money is´, and the kingpin apparently has placed himself in this miserable Block because that’s where the business is. Marijuana and coke for personal use are legal in Peru, but heroin also works through the visitors and guards to the kingpin. ´Anything you want,´ he tells me, ´I can get,´ and then bows out politely that cues a circle of young unkempt inmates to tighten around us.
Yet a man of simian proportions parts them to grin broadly at my guide who nods a second okay that prompts him to utter, ´I am the Block Enforcer, and if you need help just whisper my name Pedro and your fears will go away.` He then steps back through the circle that breaks to allow his graceful exit, and a dozen young convicts approach without touching to beg cigarettes, offer marijuana, and sell candy.
Word echoes along the hard hallways that a gringo is in maximum! and fifty men more shyly than not come up in tactful groups of three to five. Many move directly to the Teacher to show off their new English vocabulary to which he grunts and grins and solicits my corrections. I hold court and teach everyone the words for sky and hope…
Two Mongrel pups prance down the hall sniffing for scraps and accepting tender pats from the inmates. The dogs are in far better flesh than the men in leading a Life of Riley with Carte Blanche to scratch and exit without bribing the guard and, no doubt, to enter another Block where the pickins ain´t so slim.
The dogs pass under a 6×12´ exactingly painted ´Rules and Regulations´ sign in rainbow colors that strictly forbids contraband such as drugs, electronic devices, weapons, fighting, and touching a guard. The punishment is solitary confinement in the Hole for stealing, fighting or breaking most of the other rules. The Hole which a few of the men cringe to recall is 1×2 meters by 2 meters high with only a mattress from which a person may not leave for his stay of one week to two months on bread and water.
I don’t meet the maximum Block Leader but he and the other Leaders seem to run the penal institution. Eight Pavilions with eight Leaders, as outside where chiefs run villages. Their responsibility as mediators is to iron out problems before they would annoy the authority. The guards are loath to enter any of the Blocks for any reason without a SWAT team, and so the Leader keeps them out of the loop. I am told that the guards never taunt or hit a prisoner. Let’s say an inmate infracts the most commonly broken rule of no fighting that if not for the in-house system would result in being sent to the Hole for two weeks and going stir. Instead, the offender is brought by the Enforcer to the Leader who listens patiently, decides on a short counsel, or as often as not doles out harder encouragement. That discipline, as in my school days, is a hit across the hands with a ruler, except in this case the offending prisoner is made to cross his hands and given blows on the palms with a heavy rattan stick. One young guy displayed bruised swollen hands, and attested, ´The stick hurts like heck!,’ but cheerfully accepted it in lieu of the Hole.
In contrast, American prisons host fairer courts, shorter sentences, broken rules, snitches, fighting and gangs, and combative guards. The Iquitos penal complex is more like an American turn of 20th century rural town except no one is at liberty to leave.
The Russian as the sole gringo in the community seems to be the King of all and kept in check only by the guards and his Block Leader who also respect him, if not for his physical prowess and sharp mind, then for his wallet that is always padded for bribes to get nearly anything he wants. He is totally at ease among the Peruvians on both sides of the bars who all seem in awe of his size, wealth, intellect and communication skills.
His parents do not know he’s in prison because it would embarrass them, and the returned brother to Russia has told them their son is walking in the jungle looking for wood. He has served one of a three year sentence and is content to fill in for his brother except that he’s bored to tears. It is more expensive to bribe himself out because of his noteworthy case and large bankroll that may be pinched longer by the court and jail. Yet, he claims that after one year imprisonment the balance has tipped in his favor and he is working with two Lima lawyers on the proper fee to be sprung.
‘How do you communicate with the lawyers all the way in Lima,’ I ask after we drop off the Teacher at the carpenter shop and stroll on to Pavilion 3. He smiles quickly and silently, guiding me by the elbow past the turnkey, down the hall where I first walked in alone and into his cell. The black chess pawn sits lonely on the desk. He asks if I play. I say I used to. He remarks that he started playing at age six, but it is just a hobby. ‘Chess is to Russians as baseball is to Americans.’ He pulls a board from under the mattress, I sit on his bunk and he on a crate with his back to the cell door. He extends fists across the board and I choose the left, that opens to a white pawn and we quickly set up the pieces. The Teacher walks in with something in his hand too, hops surreptitiously into the bunk behind me and draws the curtain.
There is no chess clock except the game must end in one hour to get me out before the end of visiting hours at 2pm, and if the game has no winner in that time we agree in advance to a draw. I have one strong opening, the King’s Gambit, and push the King’s pawn two jumps ahead against the Russian. The Gambit is taken and the game evolves into a wild and wooly middle with hands flying over pieces like a Bruce Lee movie. In thirty minutes of nearly flawless play at one of the most beautiful games of my life, in a King and pawn end game I am a pawn up. He rises and tips his king, shakes my hand, and then draws open the curtain behind me.
The Teacher is reclined on the bunk texting his attorney to get out of jail in three months for $1000 to a judge. He has brought the contraband phone perhaps from the carpenter shop to escape the weekly scrutiny of unannounced Swat Team cell shakedowns. I nod in understanding at them both and turn for a long walk out without looking back.
The Iquitos prison visit was an invaluable seminar where I learned that behind walls and wire and bars life goes on not so differently as outside on the streets of Peru. It is the most pleasant Crossbar Hotel of ten I’ve visited around the world, and nearly anyone could bear a year looking through the slats here though I have no desire to return except for a good chess game.