Recently I went to a fiesta at the local women’s prison here in Quito, Ecuador, where I received a salsa lesson from a double murderer (she killed her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend). I also met a few less fiery prisoners, all of them foreign, none of whom deserved to be there.
Alice, an Italian woman fluent in six languages, was the first to greet me. Alice was once—and hopes to one day be again—a radio officer for a cargo shipping company that took her all over the world, including, unfortunately, to Ecuador. In prison, Alice has developed an aggressively hard personality, and this has given her some pull. In a small room—which she rents for fifteen dollars US a month—she has set up a “fitness centre”: two cardio machines paid for in part by outside friends and family. Alice charges five bucks per prisoner per month for use of the facility, which provides her with something of an income, vital to those who do not want to risk malnutrition living solely off the meagre meals provided by the prison.
As they were crowning this year’s queen of the prison (the pageant’s lone blonde won—predictably, I was told), a friend of Alice’s named Zoe joined us. As she did, the much-anticipated Ecuadorian boy band began its performance. They danced in an exaggerated American fashion and lip-synced poorly. Events such as these, with their bittersweet taste of the outside world, are depressing for Zoe. Originally from Ireland, she worked for six years as a financial correspondent for a British newscast. She got married not long before her misadventure in Ecuador and, while travelling through Kenya with her new husband, adopted two African children.
Zoe and Alice are there for the same reason most foreigners are: drug trafficking. Zoe was set up by a man that she and her husband knew and trusted. (Later on, I met an American woman imprisoned for the same offence who had actually been deceived by her husband while returning from their honeymoon.)
Corruption is blatant here and each woman knows the price of her freedom, the amount the prosecuting attorney requires for a change of heart. As Alice was telling me her price, we were approached by none other than the First Lady of Ecuador. She was there to hand out cheap boxes of chocolates and—being Señora Lucio Gutierrez—to add a regal note to the party. She gave me a European peck on both cheeks, and then a long, sympathetic hug to Alice. Eyes still wet from telling me about her $25,000 burden, Alice was embraced by the woman proudly married to the man who is, very probably, the reason for that burden. It was a strange moment. Alice sat back down and asked me if I wanted a whisky (a guard runs a small, profitable booze-can racket). The price was twenty dollars a cup. We decided against it.
I came back the next visiting day with an Austrian friend of mine, Claus, to bring the women a few books and some tubes of toothpaste. After bribing the guards, we were given the opportunity to see the cells. In the new pavilion, where prisoners of higher standing reside, women sleep two to a room. In the old pavilion the rooms are the same size (two metres by two metres) but sleep seven prisoners. This is not even taking into account the children. Of the seven hundred prisoners, one-eighth have small children. And if a prisoner cannot afford to buy herself a mattress, she goes without.
We sat down with Zoe on a staircase connecting the second and third floors in the new pavilion. She told us that they were preparing a hunger strike. Under intense pressure from the United States, a new law had recently been passed that extended by an additional four years all drug traffickers’ original four-year sentences. The double murderer I salsa-danced with on my previous visit had received only five years. Considering the prospect of eight years in prison (she had only served ten months and still not received an official sentence), Zoe began to cry. Claus and I sat silently below her on the staircase. Then came the thunderous shout from a guard that visiting hours were up. Hurriedly, Zoe jotted down on a scrap of paper her vitals in Dublin should we ever manage to come visit her there. Claus, noticing that beside her mom and dad’s phone numbers there was the word “cell,” remarked, “Your parents are in cells, too?” She laughed at his tactlessness, then so did we all. But soon we were pushed to the door and there were tears again.