Jaime and I walked around the basketball court and he pointed to a guy who wore a wool sweat suit and a cap that covered his entire head even though the heat was more than 80 degrees. He also wore dark glasses which made it hard to make out his face. The weird thing was that the glasses were smothered in white lotion like Noxzema or some kind of sun protection. His name was Mao, and he was one of the most dangerous men in the penitentiary. Under his sweat-shirt, he carried a 20 inch knife that he used for cutting men in there. Jaime said that it was better not to talk to him. He was always alone, and this is the way he preferred it. I asked Jaime if the police knew of his assassinations and he laughed telling me that all they were good for was walking around the rooftop with riffles in tow, ready to shoot anyone who dare cause trouble. damned

I looked at the trash site and I thought to myself: “This whole place is exactly what it looks like, a huge trash deposit where humans came to rot or die.” In each one of them, you could see misery, desperation, and utter resignation. It was a place from which some hardly returned in flesh, or in spirit.

Barahona bought some vegetables and three cans of sardines and he gave them to Alberto a gay man who started to cook for him a few days before. Alberto didn’t lose the opportunity to get right down to business since there was still “running” electricity.

Barahona invited me and Jaime to eat. The food was delicious. We savored each bite and enjoyed the freshly squeezed juices from Dario’s stand. Lunch at the cell was especially nice that day since there was no one there.

Later on I wanted to take a shower so I went to Chespirito’s place to buy soap along with some shampoo. His store was in his “goleta,” right where he slept. He sold all kinds of merchandise. The whole place smelled of Herring, the stinky dry fish that men ate the day before conjugal visits. It is said to have a lot of aphrodisiac properties, therefore, the demand was high.

I returned to my cell and took a shower there. God, everything was so uncomfortable and despicable but this was the way it was. I knew I had to adapt to the suffering and misery lurking all around me otherwise I’d go insane.

The kitchen, the toilet, and the hole on the wall where the water flowed out of, were all combined into a single cube-like space that measured about 5 feet in length and 5 feet in height. While someone cooked, another showered, and another “shitted,” all in a rhythmic and synchronized circle.

The toilet seat was just that, a place to sit on. There was no liquid in the bowl so one would have to fill a bucket with water and dump it in repeatedly, flushing away the excrement as best as possible; and the pressure in the shower was so weak that it was better to use the same toilet bucket and a can of Campbell soup to pour water over my body.

The improvised shower didn’t last long because Joselito was rushed in by two other guys who helped him get to the toilet so he could vomit. He was so ill that it was blood he released from his guts and not anything solid.

The guards gave him permission to go to the hospital where he would be treated. The only problem with this was that Joselito would be entering at his own risk.

Dirty faces and slovenly hairs, torn shorts and some men without shoes. Most of them sitting on the ground full of dirt. Others having fun watching how dogs copulated. These were the scenes I encountered in Vietnam—the worst section of “La Victoria” Penitentiary in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Sodom

We walked through the basketball court, Jaime, Barahona and I. It was in terrible condition and there were guys drying wet clothes on hang-lines and on courtyard roof-tops after washing them in buckets full of water.

Some men, the ones that could afford the daily food rations, had the option of strolling the basketball court for half an hour, or more. They did it without a care for the stench, neither the swarm of flies nor the rats on piles of dump.

Jaime asked me if I was “in” for drugs and when I answered yes, his response didn’t alleviate me in the least. He said I could be facing at least 20 years in that “hell-pit” and that there was a judge by the name of Severino who was ruthless in his sentencing.  One “joint” of marijuana could earn you at least 5 years in the pen.

I looked around all those men without lives, without souls. Would I too become one of them if given an eternal doom? Then when Jaime told me that it would take at least 3 years for a judge to sentence me, I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me. I wanted to die.

The laws in Dominican Republic are very strict and the process too slow. The courts were filled with files waiting to be opened and mobilized. The “50-88” drug law imposed in 1988, made most of the prisons inflated with around 20,000 inmates all over the island, most of them thrown in jail without proof of their innocence. A large percentage were young men living in the most heinous and impoverished conditions imaginable. Who could tolerate such treatment? There was no support of any kind. Meals, medical attention, sanitary practices, all of this was non-existent in that place. Worst yet, the lack of morality, decency, and compassion, by the employees whose only purpose was to do their job with care, did the complete opposite. They conducted themselves like royalty while they treated us like animals.

We continued to walk through a gate that led to a pavilion and into the center of Vietnam. Jaime was right, most of the people knew him and this gave me a sense of security. We walked through a dark passage-way full of “goletas” on either side where more than 500 men resided in deplorable conditions. The human traffic was very impressive, like a crowed town. It took my eyes a few seconds to adapt to the darkness. For an instant I lost the notion of time, thinking that I was drowning in a medieval nightmare without refugee. The bodies were empty as if their souls had lifted into thin air and left them there to rot. Inside the “goleta” were prisoners cooking on rusted pots and the smell of food, marijuana, and cigarette smoke, confused my senses. I could hear different beats bounce off each other as music blasted from dozen radio systems, all clashing with each other at the same time.

We stood in front of a “goleta” where a man had a 5 gallon can on top of a brick stove. Jaime invited us to try homemade ginger tea. The man used to sell it in small plastic cups. It was good, hot and spicy, and I enjoyed it so much that later on I became his most loyal customer. There was noise inside the “goleta” next to the “tea store” and from the corner of my eye I could see men practicing sex with one of the many homosexuals that were there. These men had it rough because most of the time, they would get raped. I later found out that this was part of the daily prostitution business. For 5 dollars, the “trannies” would perform oral sex and for 10 they would go all the way. Most of the homosexuals used to work cutting hair and doing manicures. One of them was Luis, a young man who arrived from Peru with drugs in his stomach. Rumor had it that as soon as he entered prison, he was forced to perform sex with more than 10 guys.

The gang used to make money with them especially on visitation days. The gay population would dress as ladies and they would walk around Hall A looking for customers. At the end of the visits, the gang would collect the money that they had earned.

On this “tour,” the realization of my new existence sunk in. It wasn’t a nightmare. It was my life.

I had been transported to Sodom and Gomorra, a world of sadism, evil, and bestiality.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked Dario. Rat

“Oh shit, Tony! What a surprise to see you. Listen man, it’s a long story but bottom line is my “mules” got caught and that’s how I ended up in this shit-hole. But I spoke to Pacheco and he told me that he’d get me out soon.”

“Listen brother…that’s all bullshit.” I alerted him with firmness. “He’s the one behind all this fucken mess. He’s the reason you’re locked up.”

“What’d you mean?”

“Every-time I asked about you, he’d tell me you were tied up in Colombia transporting “mules” when in reality you were already here.”

“So how do you explain the food and money he sent me? That’s how I managed to put this juice stand.”

“Look brother…you don’t understand. Pacheco was the snitch. He’s the one working with the police.”

Dario’s face turned pale white. He was in dismay. The shocking news sent chills down his spine and he couldn’t seem to get a word out his mouth.

At that moment, we were interrupted by Barahona who invited me to a papaya juice with a slice of cake.

Dario seemed to be doing alright given the popularity of his goods. His stand was the most money making business in the court. It sold 100 juices a day since its launch.

I told him about the roach incident and how the infestation quickly asserted my new environment, giving me a dose of reality that penetrated without lament.

In the middle of the ruckus, Dario managed to get me a pair of shorts and a t-shirt while Barahona supplied me with toiletries and flip-flop sandals—our “uniform” and “survival kit” in the institution.

Together, Barahona and I walked to a wall divider where we could see the breakfast line. I asked him somewhat ignorantly, kind of knowing the answer to my question, why was there no real dining room and he explained that it was because the “powers that be” were only interested in filling up the prison to “fatten” their pockets.

“Just imagine Cubano…this place was built for 800 prisoners and there are over 5,000.”

I looked around, observing every square inch of the place and he was right, there was not a single space to sit, move, spit, much less, breath. We were all squeezed in like cattle waiting to be slaughtered.

The presence of trees was also non-existent, a ludicrous thing given the necessity to shield ourselves from the burning sun. All one could see was filth and trash scattered everywhere.

Just as we got ready to leave, a guy approached us and introduced himself as Jaime from Colombia. I immediately inquired about “living arrangements,” meaning other alternatives as opposed to the piece of cardboard I was sleeping on.

He offered to talk to Caliber .45 for a “Goleta.” It was a tent-like hut made of sheets that hung from the ceiling of the cell that provided privacy. He also warned that the cost for one of these “habitats” ranged from $1,500 to $2,000 dollars, depending on the size of the floor it would occupy.

“You guys know your way around?” Jaime asked.

“Follow me…I’ll give you a tour.”

“How safe is it?” I inquired.

“Don’t worry, everyone knows me here.”

We walked across the court yard passed two armed police-men that monitored everyone’s move from the roof top above us. We were led through a gate that connected to what was considered the worst place in the penitentiary.

Armando came to my rescue. He was the man that you went to if you needed your clothes washed in Hall A, and for little cash, he would do it for me. images

Although he was always high on crack cocaine or whatever he could get his hands on, he treated me well and showed me decency from the first moment I arrived.

Armando came from a good and well educated family in Santo Domingo. His father owned a shopping mall that afforded his son access to everything. Unfortunately, with this privilege, came substance abuse. Since he could buy expensive lethal drugs in great proportions, that’s exactly what he did. Before he knew it, the perils of cocaine abuse soon consumed his life, and it is what led to his imprisonment. Because he failed to complete the court ordered drug program in the city, he was sentenced to three years in the “pen.”

That morning he offered to wash my sheets and help me tie my folded cardboard with a rope and hang it from a nail on the concrete wall. No one could use my spot on the floor at night neither my nail on the wall, meaning that at least I had gained some property.

The electricity was back on. It was imperative to use as much of it during the day because by night-time, it would go off again. We would be left without power for a good 12 hours on a daily basis.

The prisoners sleeping against the walls, including Barahona, were immobile. Or at least I thought they slept with the sheets covering every inch of their bodies. Perhaps to shield themselves from the infestation of flies that made their sheets look dirty instead of the color white. Even in the jungles of Colombia I never saw such a pool of insects.

The cell door was opened by members of the gang and two police men entered. One of them started to call us by names and the other alerted us to the 5 o’clock curfew. It was 8 in the morning and we had 9 hours to come and go as we pleased.

I walked out the cell. I wanted to explore my new surroundings, my new home, and my new neighbor.

The corridor walls of Hall A were marked with dirt and mildew, looking repulsive, nasty, and giving the illusion of eternal darkness.

As soon as we walked out of Hall A, many prisoners from other areas of the penitentiary congregated in the open court to sell their goods. Cigarettes, newspapers, coffee, fruits, anything with value, was for sale.

Hall A was the one that brought in the most money among more than 5,000 prisoners in the penitentiary.

Some prisoners worked as clothes-washers, cooks, secretaries, while others walked weak and hungry trying to find a piece of bread to eat. Others simply paced around, their minds full of hatred trying to see what they could steal. These were also the ones who served as informants for the gang. They kept their ears to the ground listening for any kind of rebellion or overthrow. If this occurred, Caliber .45 was told and he’d make sure to confront the accused, making his life—perhaps a short one after that—a painful one to endure.

The smell of rot mixed with the aroma of food cooking on top of the make-shift stoves, was more than anyone could bear. Still, the “retailers” made sure to cook their stuff before the power went off. Even though it was said that there’d be electricity up until 6, there was never any guarantee that it would be kept running.

The stoves were made of red bricks and a heating element on top of it that had two cables connected to it. A “live” wire was married to the two cables to activate them. This wire went around the brick and was placed right next to the toilet. Meaning, while someone cooked, another person defecated.

Music was on a lot. The pounding rhythms of Salsa, Bachata, Mambo, and Rock, penetrated from the sound systems across the court, all meshing into one big “boom.”

For all the prisoners, this was normal. To me, it was torture.

Even more so when I saw a bunch of men running towards the “chow-hole.” Literally, a hole in the wall where a man scooped oat meal from a 55 gallon drum.

There were more than 3,000 men holding on to each other so that no one would skip the line. They had to carry a container for their ration. Sometimes, it was contaminated with worms and flies while others had big plastic Coca-Cola bottles that they cut in half. I saw some with simpler improvisations such as newspaper or a piece of cardboard.

After receiving the oatmeal, they’d sit wherever they could find a place.

While this was unfolding, I decided to gravitate towards the sound of blenders running. I noticed a guy behind a table full of fruits as he cut into a pound cake. I guess he could sense my approach because he instinctively lifted his head as I got closer. The look of amazement showed in each of our faces. The man behind the business was Dario, my Colombian friend who had introduced me to Pacheco.

Armando put out the candle and everything turned pitch black. I closed my eyes in an attempt to fall asleep but it was impossible. My mind was fixated on the uncertainty of the place. Not knowing who surrounded me gave me the creeps. Even though Hall A housed foreigners and Dominicans with money, I was haunted by the thought of spending the rest of my nights alongside murderers, thieves, and rapists. images

My shirt was drenched in sweat and little by little, my eyes began to close. I decided to use my shirt as a pillow, leaving my pants and shoes on, before completely drifting into unconsciousness. This way, I’d have a better chance of not being robbed of my belongings, the only things I had.

“Ah!” “Oh God!” I got up screaming when I felt something crawling around my mouth. The light from the sun was coming in through the bars of the window and I could see that roaches were trying to eat my saliva and my ears. I slapped them off and they ran between the bodies of the others laying on the pavement.

Everyone was covered in their sheets. The scene looked more like a morgue than a cell.

None of the prisoners woke-up. I guess they were used to it already. It was just an ordinary morning for them in that place.

I looked at my sheet, even though it was stained with Joselito’s blood, I decided to cover myself as well.

There were 14 men squeezed into one tiny cell, most of them struggling to get to the toilet, making the best of the confined situation, when we arose. I wanted to brush my teeth and take a shower, but that was simply a fantasy that could not be achieved.

I also wanted to talk to my parents, to Ana, to my kids.

The fact that I had been reduced to nothing, to a man without a voice, rights, and a number instead of a name who would spend God knows how many years in that hell, had rendered me mercilessly. My agonizing despair, my beaten down spirit, was the only thing I had to hang on to.

I quickly realized that I would have to adapt.

If I wanted to keep my sanity, I was going to have to adjust to prison life, to my concrete mistress.

Barahona woke up immediately, looking confused and startled. images

“What’s going on?”

“There is somebody that just arrived, he’s asking for you.” Armando moved the candle near my face so that my appearance could be seen and Barahona got up right away.

“Hey Cubano…What’s with you? You’re following me everywhere.”

“I know man…I asked for you once I got here.”

“Let me find you a place to sleep.” He kicked someone on his back. “Hey…you…get up. C’mon get up!”

“What’s going on?” the man responded.

“Don’t worry about what’s going on. Just get the fuck up. I need your space. Tomorrow I’ll give you some money. Leave the cardboard and the sheet.”

It was incredible that each square foot in the cell had an owner and a price.

With money, a 6 x 10 foot space with thick sheets for privacy, could be bought. It was the highest privilege and luxury an inmate could have.

At the time of my arrival, there were none available and the only way I could get one was by waiting for someone to leave or paying more to kick someone out.

The man got up from his cardboard and readjusted himself next to the hole on the ground which was considered the toilet.

I laid on the cardboard trying to accommodate myself but it was so uncomfortable and viciously hot. I didn’t even bother to cover myself with the sheet.

Barahona went back to sleep but I simply couldn’t.

On that first night, I heard intense wailing sounds of pain. They were the screams of a young man who cried in agony.

“Oh God! No…Please…Oh God…I want to die.” Joselito, was struggling to make it to the toilet before vomiting blood on top of us.

Felipe, a Colombian who got busted for smuggling cocaine in his stomach took mercy on him and got up to help him.

Joselito was very sick, he had lost more than 50 lbs. and no one knew what was wrong with him. He had been in prison for more than 7 years on a 20 year sentence.

When he first arrived, according to what I found out, the nights were entertaining for the inmates in the cell. He used to play the guitar and belt out song after song. All he needed was a “joint” to get him started. After that, he’d play for hours.

Most of the inmates slept only with shorts because of the heat. After a while, I could feel my cardboard wet. It was the sweat of the surrounding bodies that had soaked everything around.

Through the scarce light coming from Armando’s candle, I could see everyone pressed against each other, not being able to breathe much less move, looking more like a slave ship than a cell.

“Oh shit!” Jorge, another inmate near the barred door shouted. A rat had bitten him.

My mind started to race with unfathomable thoughts, wondering if my experience would last to see another day.

images“Where are you from?” He asked, trying to intimidate me with his look.

“Miami.” I replied, somewhat proudly.

“Listen well…I can help you get a good place in here but you’ll need some money, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t have any right now but I can get some in a few days. Listen, is it possible to take me to Barahona?”

“You know Barahona?”

“Yeah. He’s a friend of mine.”

The man turned to Chicho, “Take this guy to Hall A.”

“O.K.”

Before I could be escorted, Caliber .45 advised me.

“Listen good…you’re going to the best place in this junk, but as I said, you’ll need money. If you don’t come up with 500 dollars in a few days, you’ll be transferred to Viet-Nam, the worst area.” He almost whispered, “Do you understand?”

“Don’t worry…I’ll get the money.”

I left with three of his lieutenants.

Daytime had already vanished, and the surrounding calm surprised me.

The country was having problems with the electrical power and the prison’s only light was coming from a single generator fed by gas that they kept outside.

As we walked through Hall A., complete darkness invaded us. It took my eyes a few seconds to get acclimated to the light that was coming from the 13 cells that were lit by candles.

Fumes from the wax were heavily concentrated and the smell was intense. The heat was enough to make my shirt stick to my sweaty body, making it look like I had double skin. I asked myself: “How could this be the best area in the prison?” And “How bad could the worse area be?”

We got to cell #7 and Chicho peeked through the iron bars to see if he could get someone’s attention. Nothing could be seen so he squatted and struck an inmate asking him for a candle. The man got up and obediently offered him one.

Chicho inserted a key into the lock and opened the heavy door, ordering me to go in.

Everything was so dark that it was hard for me to make my way through without stepping on the countless of bodies spread throughout.

On each side of the wall, there were tents called “Goletas” made out of bed sheets where the “most privileged” slept privately.

The smell of marihuana combined with the intoxicating odor of sweat made me sick but, my good sense forced me to block it off so that I wouldn’t vomit on them.

I noticed a lit candle a few meters away so I used it to guide me across the cell.

Armando, a man in his 40’s, who looked to be just skin and bones, was heating up some heroin over a spoon.

“Hey man…I’m looking for a man named Barahona. Do you know where he is?”

The man looked at me with bulging and empty eyes and signaled to a corner.

“It’s that man sleeping over there.”

Without a second thought, and in his semi-conscious state, still holding on to courtesy as a way of maintaining his humanity in that God awful place, I suppose, Armando got up and led me through the crowded space until we reached the end, where a huge body slept.