You committed a crime. Armed robbery. You still remember that day when the police caught you. No prayer to the Virgin or voodoo plea could have helped loosen the hands of your captors; nothing to abate the fury with which the judge’s hammer swung.
Sentence: 10 years.
Feels like: being buried alive.
Your wife without a husband, your mother without her son, your children without their father. Your new home is a second-floor cell at the Puente Grande prison in Jalisco, Mexico. You are one of the 172,800 prisoners that occupy Mexico’s 448 prisons.
You live in a 10 x 15 square, and you share it with a lamp, a mattress and a toilet. The neighborhood is occupied by thousands of criminals. Prison is not a reformatory, but instead a place of atonement, and as such, a place of punishment, of jailers and of demons.
This is the same prison from which the drug lord “El Chapo” famously escaped in 2001. He hid in the laundry car and, as if by magic, passed all security checks unnoticed, going on to strengthen and reorder the entire structure of drug trafficking in the country. The U.S. government has offered US$ 5 million for El Chapo, and Forbes Magazine named him one of the most influential men in the world.
By your own hand, life has turned into hell, and now all you have is your hands to survive. Here, you will have to assert yourself, use every resource to make your life more dignified, to protect your body and, if possible, to leave this place one day.
Whether you make it out by surviving the full sentence, or by breaking a path to freedom through the bars, the guards and the walls, your most useful skills will not be those learned outside prison, but within. Follow the tips and procedures that other Latin American prisoners have already used to heat food, communicate with others and defend yourself.
To eat well in prison, you need to become another link in the smugglers’ chain. Trade cigarettes and other goods for DIY materials and food. The dining room and the workshops where you receive carpentry classes are also great places to find the raw elements of cooking tools like these:
Make a stove: One can, an electrical cable, a stove coil and some dirt for ballast.
Make a barbeque: A brick with several horizontal incisions and a few smaller vertical vents, a long wire spring and a power cable to heat the spring and grill your food.
Make your own tableware: Recycle an empty can of soda as your personal drinking glass. Cut a piece of tin to make a spoon and an old tuna can to make your bowl.
A well-informed prisoner is a valuable one, and a prisoner with a pet pigeon could be the most important man in the jailyard. Loyal pigeons can exchange messages for your friends and even smuggle raw materials. To find out how to do it, just watch the Colombian prisoners of high-security Combita prison, who trained pigeons to fly between cells to exchange messages and sim cards.
Prisons are dangerous places. The best choice is always to avoid conflict and a good smuggler knows how to stay out of harm’s way. However, in a community where violence reigns, it doesn’t hurt to prepare a little extra protection.
Blades: A pencil sharpener from which the blade has been extracted and then re-embedded on the outside. Two lighters, one with a blade at the tip and the other with a nail stuck on top.
Swords: Remove the rustiest parts of your window frame; sharpen them rubbing the metal against the floor of your cell.
Photos by Gabriela Gómez-Mont