It is 9:00 a.m. in El Centro Femenino Rehabilitacion Social. The children are already out. Yes, there are presently 35 school-age children living behind bars with their mothers. There are a dozen babies under the age of 18 months, three of whom are newly born.
I move through the prison gates and a guard stamps my forearm. He tells me he doesn’t want to forget that I am not a prisoner. I am spending my semester abroad in Ecuador and studying Spanish and politics. I came to the prison after meeting a young Ecuadorian lawyer who was representing two Dutch prisoners. The girls wanted English-speaking company. I spent the following three months visiting the prison. I was able to work with inmates who were protesting, bring in medical and educational donations, and speak with the prison administration.
The 300 women presently incarcerated in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s federal penitentiary, have most recently drawn attention to their dire conditions by scaling the walls of the prison and burning fires of old mattresses infested with bedbugs, mites, and the illnesses of many inmates past. The smoke signals reach as far as the eight-lane highway leading away from the coast and into the mountains, but certainly not far enough. The ashes of burnt plastic, fabric, and garbage merge indistinguishably with the exhaust of big rigs overflowing with Dole bananas, as well as the smoke pouring from the darkened chimneys of low-rise factories. The calls for help and pleas for justice are lost in another night’s dulled sunset in this sprawling port city.
The capacity of the women’s prison is 150, yet there are 300 inmates sleeping head to toe on cots in three pavilions. The newest inmates sleep on the floor of the notorious Third Pavilion, the roughest and filthiest section in the complex. A young German girl has been sleeping for over two years on the fly-covered and roach-infested ground in the Third, never having received a cell. Two U.S. citizens who were recently incarcerated shared a cot for 13 months of imprisonment before one received a trial and eventually gained freedom. A middle-aged Colombian woman, considered to be a threat to herself and others due to a worsening psychotic condition recognized by both the Colombian consulate and the prison administration, is kept in solitary lockdown. She tells me she needs drug rehabilitation. In a letter I deliver to the Colombian consulate this woman writes: “I live without water and without light. I have no cell. Es un infierno.” It is hell.
Though a doctor is paid to see the inmates, he is very rarely present. He has no medicine or equipment, even for late-term pregnancies, diabetics, or children with severe flu and high fevers. During the summer a meningitis outbreak killed three inmates in the adjacent men’s complex. The AIDS epidemic, taking the community in great numbers, is aggravated by the phenomenon of “intimo.” Every Thursday around 60 women are escorted to the men’s prison for eight hours of “socializing.” They return pregnant, or HIV positive, or both.
Illness is rampant. The bathrooms remain locked, and bucket flushing overflows into cells. When it rains, inches of runoff collect in the pavilions. The women suffer from bug bites resulting from the swampy ground in their cells. They speak also of snake bites.
The food served is rice, occasionally tuna or sardines. They have one rusty knife. The children are stick thin and the women overweight. There are customary water shortages lasting for up to 14 days at a time, a record set last spring. During the shortage, two male inmates were shot in a riot over drinking water. The women were told they had to pay $1 to brush their teeth.
There are no classes or rehabilitation. There is one social worker for all 300 women. She comes twice a month. The majority of the women await trials for up to 12 months before receiving their sentence. An unknown number of these women, most of whom are in because of drug charges, are innocent, were framed, or were just trying to feed their families. Over 35 percent of the women are from other countries and often not only isolated from their families but also from their consulates. These women are from countries including the United States, England, Russia, Thailand, the Philippines, South Africa, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia.
Ecuador plays a unique role in international drug trade. Bordering both Colombia and Peru, two of the world’s largest cocaine growers and refiners, Ecuador is known more as an integral part of the transport and distribution of illegal narcotics than as a production center. The Andean region has seen a marked increase in militarized antidrug initiatives during the last fifteen years, most of which have roots in the USA’s war on drugs. Recently, the U.S. strategically placed a military base in the northern Ecuadorian city of Manta. Due to its proximity to the Colombian border, the base strengthens the Plan Colombia initiative. Funded in great part by the United States, Plan Colombia has attempted to fight narcotics trafficking within Colombia. This initiative, however, has failed to locate many of the high-end drug traffickers who flood the United States market with cocaine, and has instead filled prisons with first-time offenders and “mules.” These failures have had significant repercussions with neighboring Ecuador. Plan Colombia has both pushed thousands of Colombian refugees into northern Ecuador and further aggravated relations between Ecuador and Colombia.
Plan Colombia is not ideologically unique but instead represents a growing trend resulting from the zero-tolerance drug policies initiated here in the U.S., beginning with the Rockefeller drug laws. These policies, though often considered inadequate and ineffectual, are becoming common in South and Central American countries like Ecuador. Mandatory minimums are a dubious but growing American export.
For these reasons and many more, the inmates organize in protest. They send representatives on all-night buses into the capital city to speak at the National Congress. They write grievances. Within prison walls, things are more gruesome and desperate. Women demonstrate through self-mutilation. Through self-burials, crucifixions, hunger strikes, as well as sewing their eyes and lips shut, women express their misery. They plead for trials, citing the Ecuadorian Constitution, and for a 50 percent reduction in their sentences. They demand compensation for the nation’s abuse of their human rights.
The nation refuses. And so nothing changes. A few have gained their freedom. They have returned to their families and homes, alienated and traumatized. The rest remain ill and forgotten in the shadow of the smoke still rising from the roof of the women’s prison.
Caitlin Dunklee is a writer based in Manhattan.