Prisoners like to talk about the conditions in other prisons, as if the comparison might improve their mood, or give them another reason to voice a complaint.  So when I mention that I once did a stretch in a Mexican prison, invariably they exclaim, “Oh yeah, what was that like?”

I have a stock answer: “Just like the film ‘Midnight Express,” and I might also mention the ton of pot the Federales busted me with, the torture, the Napoleonic law that meant I was guilty until proven innocent.  Almost always they want to know more.

So I tell them about the ancient stone walls and the windowless gun towers and how the cellblocks were quonset style–a hundred-ten men in each sweltering building with an eight-inch hole in the cement for a toilet, a pipe with running water for a shower.

There were no cells.  Instead, each building contained its own separate shantytown.  An aisle ran the length of each building, and on either side were the plywood and cardboard shacks —”houses” for the “rich”–while in the aisle the “buffaloes” roamed, the down-and-out who paced all day and slept at night wherever they stopped.                                                 

There was no yard to speak of, only a cement patio called a loma fronting the cellblocks, so crowded at rec hours one could scarcely move.  No gym, no weight pile, no track or ball fields, and one telephone for nearly a thousand men, an old metal hotel phone with no dial, incoming calls only.  Should a man’s luck run out–the dreaded medical emergency–there was a small clinic with one nurse. Once, a group of well-meaning nuns brought cauldrons of chicken mole to feed the entire population; everyone was sick for days, with long lines at both the clinic and the toilet holes.  The nurse left, over-whelmed.

When money arrived, my fall-partner and I built a plywood house on stilts, above the fray.  We installed a swamp cooler, built wooden bunks, bought a TV and a stereo and an ice cooler for the occasional beer we could score from the guards. We hired a cook and a laundry man and paid a trustee to run errands between cellhouses during lock-up.  Everything from tacos to toilet paper was sold at the prison store; for anything else, there were kids with bikes outside the front gate who would shop at the local mercado or any restaurant in town.  A man could buy food, clothing, lumber, art supplies, appliances, drugs, booze, even prostitutes, for the right price.

But, nothing I could buy could change the loathing I felt.  I wanted out.

I was obsessed with escape.  I wasn’t afraid for my life, for even there, a man who did his time and no one else’s was usually left alone.  And I had a short sentence: less than four, with good-time. But I couldn’t stay a month, a week, an hour longer–for me, every minute in that hell-hole was worse than the torture I had suffered at the hands of the Federales.

I went on a diet and lost forty pounds so I could fit into a trash barrel, hoping to be carted out with the garbage, but the plan fell through.  I paid the guards to take me to a dentist downtown, arranged for a friend to kidnap me, but the friend never showed.  I faked a fall in the cellblock and spent three weeks shitting on newspaper shut away in my stilt-house, pretending I couldn’t walk.  When the guards finally took me to a hospital, it was the wrong one.  I had paid two thousand dollars to a man who claimed his brother was a doctor at a hospital where I”d surely be taken; from there I’d be hustled to a rear exit and a waiting car, it was all arranged.  All along I half knew it was a setup, that I was the mark, but what did I care?—even the slimmest of chances brought hope.

So I planned a tunnel, smuggling in a drill and moving from the stilt-house to a better location in another cellblock with other Americans, four of us constructing false walls and ceilings in our new houses to hold dirt and rocks, and in one room, a trick bed that when disassembled exposed the work area beneath it.  Months passed, drilling that foot-thick cement floor, worried sick that the noise would alert the guards or other inmates who would tell on us.

And then one day not eighteen months into my sentence I walked out of that place and got into a car and left for the U.S., as simple as that.  A wealthy Mexican drug lord brought me to his makeshift cell and dressed me in a suit, fitted me with a wig and remade my face with tanning cream and a phony mustache, then handed me a briefcase and sent me out the front gate as his visiting attorney, right past the guards. It didn’t cost me a dime.  This convict had as much power as the warden but couldn’t escape because his family lived in town. He wanted me to wholesale his pot in the States, and I did that for awhile, but it was low-grade and hard to sell, so I moved on to better deals.

[And so my prison experience in Mexico was over, less than two years after it had begun.  My partner was still there, however, still drilling tiny holes in that square of cement under the bed.  He broke through eventually, and little by little over the next six months he and the others managed to dig a narrow tunnel nearly a hundred feet under two walls to the street.  I was there with a crew and a van when they came out on a Sunday morning, and the exhilaration was every bit as intense as the day I’d left via the front gate.]

Today, I no longer think about escape.  After twenty years in a U.S. prison, the rush is long gone.  Men ask me why I risked my life back then—were the conditions really that bad?  I guess I once thought they were.  But in Mexico, I had conjugal visits: every Thursday my wife could stay five hours in my house.  And I could wear my own clothes, cook what I wanted, move freely throughout the prison without the humiliation of pat-searches and strip-outs.  There were rules but not petty rules; there was not the daily threat of a write-up for a minor infraction like an extra sheet in a cell. There, at least, I was an individual with a name, not a stat with a number.

Here in the States the punishment is beyond physical confinement.  It is more psychological. It is de-personalizing, dehumanizing.  It is subtle and thorough and lasting—not a day goes by when I am not reminded of who I am, or of who I am not.

Which, paradoxically, is why I no longer think about escape.  You could say I’ve been broken, but I would describe it as “disappeared,” and not for the worse.  When I was in that Mexican prison I thought freedom was somewhere else, anywhere but there.  More than anything, more than life, I wanted out.  And when I got out, after the rush, what I discovered was not freedom but an overwhelming sense of emptiness and disappointment.  There was a hollowness at my core that I never could have predicted, and I was desperate to fill it.

I worked harder, and worried more.  I flew into rages.  I left my wife and children, took risks I hadn’t taken before.  I thought it was a matter of more: more money, more possessions, more excitement. Freedom became a matter of distraction, anything that replaced the increasing certainty that there was no such thing as freedom, that there was, in fact, no way out of this greater prison I called my life.  The world felt heavier with each day, and I grew resentful in proportion.  I attacked total strangers, as if to take from them by force the innocence and contentment I could not conjure for myself.  And I grew afraid.  I thought I’d gone crazy, and in an effort to hide it I feigned normalcy with a precision that frightened me all the more. 

There seemed no cure but to kill myself or miraculously start over.  And it was my arrest and this new experience of prison, this time in the States, that was [the crucifixion,] the beginning of the end of my beleaguered psyche.  With the bad also went everything else, leaving me with nothing except what I could construct anew.

What came of this was the realization that freedom had nothing to do with the conditions and circumstances of my world.  Mexico showed me the worst; there was an honesty in that revelation.  It was crowded and filthy and dangerous, much like my thinking, and I yearned to be elsewhere.  True, I was allowed to keep my identity, but it was an identity that was poisonous, and it took this long stretch of psychological deprivation in the U.S. to provide the ultimate wake-up call, the ontological slap in the face.  The direction was clear: freedom was not out there, it was in here, in my head.  What I had been yearning for all along was not a change in location but a change in outlook, and the solution would be found outside of my expectations, even my beliefs.  All I had to do was to see them for what they were: lies mostly, recycled history, and most definitely obstructions to peace and contentment and compassion for others.  I reasoned that, if I changed, the world would reflect that change, and it has, even here.

So I am grateful for the time in that Mexican prison, and just as grateful for these past twenty years in this state prison, strange as that may sound.  And when a fellow convict asks if I’ve done time before and I tell him my little story about Mexico, I check closely for his reaction. It is not shock or revulsion I am looking for, it is desperation—how badly does he want it, how far will he go for his freedom, and in what direction?  For there is no formula for this turnaround.  It happens to some, and not to most.  Usually, they shake their heads and maybe whistle through their teeth, and then like every other day, they go their way and I go mine.

Although I wish it were otherwise.