TODAY NICARAUGA (By Chad Cunningham, Nicaragua Dispatch) — In my imagination, this story starts with me laying on the beach in Costa Rica. My black Labrador, Tripper, is happily rolling around in the sand. I am enjoying the waves and sunshine.
In reality I am lying on a hot bunk surrounded by cement and steel in a Nicaraguan prison. The branches of this story are twisted and turn off in many directions, like an old tree near the end of life. I live in my imagination. It is like that old tree.
During my first week of confinement my Mother rushed in to help. She flew in from Texas, although my sister had just delivered her a new grandson. She sent me a quote hidden inside a Spanish and English dictionary:
“We did not come to remain whole. We came to lose our leaves like the trees. The trees that are broken and start again, drawing up from great roots.”
Although many branches are broken, my roots are deep and intact. I am still standing during the longest winter. My leaves have long been swept away by a cruel wind.
This is a story about Nicaraguan prison. It is full of fear, dread, corruption, and lies. This story also has hope, love, commitment, humor and a small touch of sarcasm.
Smiles and laughter are a rare commodity for a foreigner with bad Spanish in a Latin American third world prison, but they are possible.
Latin American phone companies can be far less than stellar. If this story were that old tree, the branches could be followed backwards to the trunk. In the trunk would be embedded the red logo of Claro Communications.
On a Sunday afternoon, I was lying poolside with some friends. I was on the phone with a beautiful Latina woman who I had recently met. Using all of my vast manipulation skills, I almost had her talked into coming to lunch. Of course, this would be the time when my unlimited Claro phone plan reached its limit and cut off mid-conversation.
My first plan was to walk all of the neighborhood stores and purchase minutes. The problem was that I only had a 500 cordoba note — 20 U.S. dollars. I knew none of the stores would have $20 in phone minutes to sell. The dread of cashing a 500 cordoba note set in. I knew the ugly horrified faces I would see when I pulled out the huge red bill and asked for change. To the small local stores, pulperias, a 500 cordoba note might as well have the devil’s face printed on it. The old women or kids that work in those stores would rather break their own leg than to break a note that large.
As I went store to store my frustration grew. I was losing my chance at lunch with my new beauty. I got in my truck and went to one of the large moderne supermarkets to buy my minutes. The modern stores do not fear the devil. One is owned by Wal-Mart.
I bought my minutes and left on my quest for a lunch date with my new acquaintance.
I was only two blocks from the store when I felt the smash into the side of my truck. As is the case in all auto accidents, I felt instant shock and confusion. I had no idea what hit me.
I stopped the truck instantly and ran to see what happened. On the right side of the truck was a man lying face down, shirtless and twisted on the curb. I rushed to help but was immediately shunned away by a rapidly developing crowd.
I knew that this kind of scene often turns violent fast. It is never good for the gringo. I looked back to confirm I did not run a stop sign inadvertently. To my great relief I did not, nor was I driving at excessive speed. I was consoled by a few people who actually witnessed the accident. They were still friendly and confirmed to me it was not my fault. Later, they would be afraid to testify for me due to retaliation.
I was told that the driver of the scooter was trying to beat me to the intersection and miscalculated badly, or he did not see my huge 4-door Mahindra truck as he headed directly for it. He struck hard against the front right fender, behind the wheel. I never saw him coming.
I went back to my truck and frantically sent text and emails to everyone I could. My phone ran out of minutes.
After what seemed to be an endless wait, the police finally managed to traverse the five blocks from the police station. Interestingly, the first thing the officer did was take my cell phone. He then inspected and pocketed all of my papers. They were all in order. He told me not to worry but he had to take me to the station for my safety. I was happy to go with him. I could see the faces of many old women and Sunday drunks getting bitter.
Many times I have seen similar accidents while passing through Managua. There are always 20 police on the scene with tape measures and magnifying glasses. I imagine all this equipment was donated. I assume most of the techniques the traffic police use were seen on the crime drama C.S.I. The results of such intensive investigation and hours of blocked traffic clearly are not used in trial.
At the police station I was told to wait in the courtyard until the investigators sort things out. I sat calmly and patiently waiting for my lawyer and word about the injured man.
Outside the door I could hear an angry crowd forming. Screams and crying were making me very worried and scared that the other driver was seriously injured.
After another extended wait my long-time Nicaraguan friend busted through the crowd and into the courtyard. She was hysterical and told me the man had died on the way to the hospital in Managua. My lawyer, her husband, was right behind her. I was in shock again.
My friend and I cried for the dead man and his family. I still did not understand I was being blamed for his death. My lawyer then said I was going to jail. The first of many wrong assumptions and logic was that a report would be filed and I would go home. After the report from my lawyer I snapped.
I pushed my way through the doors and tried to pass the crowd of hysterical family members and friends of the deceased.
I was attacked. They hit me, spit, blocked my exit and kicked at me. They cursed me and did all they could to stop and injure me. Outside on the street police joined in the attack. I was sprayed several times with pepper spray. I was handcuffed and dragged inside by several officers. They standard tactic for subduing a prisoner must be to stomp on their bare feet and kick them in the shins repeatedly after they are handcuffed.
I was handcuffed to the only pole in the midday sun. The cuffs were stamped to make sure my hands went blue and caused nerve damage.
My anger and fear boiled into rage in the hot sun. I received third degree burns on each of my arms from touching the blistering hot pole.
Because I was only one driver in an accident that involved two drivers I made another false assumption — the investigation would show the truth and I would go free the next day.
Life on the line
Three months later I am lying a hammock 2.5 m in the steaming air staring at thousands of strings and wires that look like a dirty spider web. The criss crossed web must be home to a very large spider that eats second hand clothing and plastic bags.
It is hard to describe the chaos of this prison cell. Every string has some type of cloth or clothing hanging from it. Every wire has hundreds of splices heading off in every direction and exposed. All of these lines are tied together up and down bunks with hammocks above them. This is my home now. This is home to 120 other men.
I am living high above the cement and flies. Everything I have is hanging from a string. I have very few things but enough. Life is simple. Hours are endless. Days are unfathomable. I have the ability to lie in my hammock and stare at the plastic bag that smokes against the one hundred watt light bulb for up to 100 hours. We can remain in the cell for four days at a time. I rarely spend more than a few minutes looking at the bulb.
All the places I have lived and traveled, one thing is constant. I always bring myself with me. No matter how strange, wild or bizarre the place, given time, it can become as bland as a cubical and fluorescent light left behind in the States. I sought change and inadvertently found it.
Now I miss those ugly looks I get for trying to change my evil 500 cordoba note. I would love to wake up to my neighbor’s horrible rooster crowing at 4 am. I wish I was dehydrated in Managua traffic while dirty boys squirt filthy water on my windshield.
My third day of incarceration I stepped out of La Perrera (the cage truck) which I would become intimately familiar with during my stay in Granada’s finest. I was ushered into the Captain’s office. I had just come from court where I was charged with imprudent homicide. I also got a bonus charge of aggression towards a female. A 16-year old member of the deceased man’s family that I swear I have never seen added that charge.
In the ever-cool air conditioned office of the Commissioner stood the woman I was so desperately trying to get a lunch date with the day of the accident; my angel.
Of course I was more than surprised to see her. We had only just met. I was not making a great impression in my court issued, oversized second-hand t-shirt that read “best friends” written in puffy glitter paint. I was unshowered and unshaven. I had slept on the cold wet floor for three nights, just been charged with homicide, barefoot and bleeding from many festering wounds.
In her brilliant calm manner she told me not to worry. I could see the worry in her eyes. She was there then gone before I was able to grasp what was going on. Later I found out that she was outside running around hard at work to secure my freedom.
One of many cells during my stay with the gracious Commissioner was Cell 22. Cell 22 was obviously hastily created out of necessity. The jail was double the capacity it was designed for. At the time the jail was built there must have been an idea that crime would decrease. The concept is equally realistic as a waterfall that flows up. Although, in Nicaragua I would not be surprised. The cell is located outside of the main corridor. It was offices that have been converted to a cell. It is the home for older, people with health issues, foreigners, non-violent offenders, traffic offenders, non-drug related offenders and well-behaved inmates.
Although I fit into each of those categories my stay in the tranquil Cell 22 only lasted one day. Rumors were that the family of the dead used their influence or money to make sure my psychological torture would begin. The Commissioner moved me to the general population.
If you are making a film with a title like Third World Hell Hole or Satan’s Urinal, I would suggest the Granada jail’s general population as a backdrop.
The trash filled corridor is dark and wet. It is lit solely by one dangling light bulb at the far end of the hall. The lightbulb shone its last light when a crazed inmate broke it with a wet t-shirt. I’m certain if lightbulbs had feelings that lonely 75-watt fellow would have been ashamed that his light was used to illuminate such a horrible place.
Cigarette smoke and burning plastic fumes stood still in the stiff air. The air stuck to my head as I was led down the hall for the first time. The corridor reminded me of the home of caged, rabid and violated lab animals at Revlon makeup lab in 1970.
The jail was a result of much trial and error. Old wires hung from holes in the walls like thin snakes suffocated by plastic fumes. The rusted gates had been welded, rebar added, cut and welded again. When was once a gap used to put meals into the cell was now welded shut with cheap, rusted, thin steel bars.
The want-to-be gangsters — teenage barrio boys — thieves, murderers, drunks, drug dealers and violent rapists were all smashed into the tiny cells like a can of sardined criminals. They bounced off the cage doors as I entered the hall. They screamed in Spanish slang. Gringo was yelled repetitiously like was the first caucasian they had seen. They seemed so violently enraged that a gringo would enter their domain.
Later I realized this was the greeting used to welcome anyone who passed through the corridor, without the gringo. They threw water and burning toilet paper through the small slits in the cell doors. Through all the clamor I was guided to cell 4. The keys clanked against the padlock and the gate squealed as if suffering from years of untreated arthritis. I joined the six other boys in my new 3 meter by 2 meter box.
The boys were the same kind of friendly as the street kids who recognize me. They are the ones that speak a little broken English, treat you as a friend and then inevitably ask you for 20 cordobas or a free beer.
I was horrified that the cell had not power or water. The only light source was the tiny slits in the bars of the window, the reflection of the suicidal light bulb at the end of the hall and a hole punched through the thick cement roof. The rusted rebar was exposed and a multitude of colored plastic strings dripped limply below the knots that held them in place.
Below the hole was “the hole.” The hole was a hole in the floor that was used to relieve yourself. The thought of crouching 1/2 meter from six men in their underwear to use the bathroom was an all new form of psychological terror for me.
My space was under the bottom camaroto, one of four cement slabs used to sleep on. Camaroto translates to broken bed. Mattresses, sheets and pillows are prohibited. I was given several small pieces of flattened tattered cardboard to sleep on. One of the boys loaned me some newspaper and his black knockoff Reeboks to use as a pillow. My exhaustion overpowered my horror and I went to sleep.
Complete darkness invades the cell rapidly at sunset. Only the jail plastic recycling — burning plastic bags — lights the cell.
The noise is deafening night and day. There is a jungle of awful noise. Hacking and spitting, clapping, horrible singing, repetitious yelling, (everything is repeated at least five times and up to 30) and the most annoying of them is the inmates imitating animal calls. There are monkey sounds, dogs bark, roosters crow, sheep and pigs. Old McDonald from the children’s song would love the variety and repetition. It assaulted my brain.
The mornings started at 4:30 am with the most eerie noise I have ever heard. I could not imagine the source of these sounds. It was like an electronic snare drum with heavy reverb. Eventually I learned what was causing this bizarre symphony.
The trustee prisoners entered the hall as water fell into a huge tank from a tube in the ceiling. They wet the floor completely. They filled five gallon buckets and slide them to all the cells. The buckets were then rolled back down the hallway, echoing off the cement walls.
My nights in cell 4 were very terrifying. Luckily, the family of the deceased were not the only people in Granada with influence. My new guardian angel arranged for me to be sent back to the relative peace of cell 22.
Return to Cell 22
The 26 men living in the converted office welcomed me back. They were as confused by this back and forth as I was. I was sent to a spot on the floor that would be mine. I was assigned two tiles of space. I was introduced to life on the lines.
Everything in the cells is hung from the ceiling. Plastic string is tied to the rebar on the ceiling, then a plastic bottle is tied to the other end. You use the bottle to fasten plastic bags full of your things.
I was in extreme distress and worried. I was facing very serious charges. I was covered in festering lesions. I had the beginning of a kidney infection that lasted nine weeks. My back and neck were full of knots and pinched nerves. I was happy to be back in the relative comfort and quiet of cell 22. My comfort did not last long.
La Perrera (The cage truck)
In the nine weeks I spent in Granada jail I was shipped like a ferocious beast to the courthouse cell 16 times. For me, these trips were the most dreaded. Each morning I sat in fear of hearing my name called when I heard the rattle of the cage truck backing up to the prisoner loading zone.
When your name is called you are rapidly shuffled out of the cell into the cage to wait. Jail is an endless series of hurry hurry hurry and wait. Everything is repeated at least three times in jail.
The cage truck is used to transport prisoners to various locations. It is an old, small Toyota. It has a cage welded to the bed made from the same rusty rebar that the gates are made of. It is made just tall enough to fit an average Nicaraguan criminal. My head stuck out the top like a sad circus giraffe heading to a stint in Dayton, Ohio. Up to 25 people are packed into the cage and paraded through the streets of Granada.
In the courthouse cage you are herded like cattle into one of 3×3 meter cells. The urinal is clogged. The walls are etched with various attempts to draw naked women, penises and the names of barrios. Pantanal seems to be a good place to meet future inmates. It is the most common name etched on the walls. Obviously, art and drawing are not nurtured talents in Granada’s barrios. The attempts at drawing naked women looked more like mangy hairless street dogs crouched on their hind legs.
The urine-soaked cell is standing room only. The young gangsters are oblivious to the fact that they are in jail. They boast about robbing gringos and smoking weed. I question the decision that many of them made to have marijuana leaves tattooed on their faces. They pretty much limit their options for a future. Never trust a doctor with a face tattoo.
They love their obnoxious ghetto slang. They love their obnoxious voices. They love to laugh, thunderously clap, hack and spit.
Nothing good came from my trips in La Perrera to Granada. Most of the time I just joined the can of gangster sardines and waited for up to eight hours. Of the 38 times I rode in the back of that truck, only once was it good news. I was going to the penitentiary.
After my first trip to general population I was very cautious and full of dread. Every day I wondered when the trap door would open and I would slide back into Hell.
The Commissioner was not happy with my move back to cell 22. WIth no explanation of why I was being punished I was sent to cell 14. It was clear that influence from outside the jail wanted to psychologically torture me.
There was an anti-me Faceook page, emails sent harassing my father, multiple professionally printed signs that said “Kill the Gringo,” along with chants for a 30-year sentence, false testimony, evidence tampering and clearly some bribery happening.
Cell 14 was built like the other 18 cells, with the exception of running water. The inmates were exceptionally friendly in a true way. They were strong Christians, evangelistic Christians. They spent their days praying, studying the Bible and learning church hymns.
Although my spiritual side was gaining momentum, evangelism is its own form of psychological torture for me.
I mean no disrespect to God, religion or the boys in cell 14, but I have to explain how evangelists practice their faith. The thick stained walls are an echo chamber. The boys read the Bible out loud all day. Five boys continuously humming different various Bible verses. The buzzing clamor would mentally disturb even the most patient person without compulsive issues.
Then there were the repetitious hymns. The men’s marginal voices for singing could sometimes start o soothe me, but then the shock of a thunderous clap or a scream of “Oh Papi!” or “Hallelujah!” would shake me back into reality.
The boys pray all hours of the day and night. One woke up at 3 am to pray out loud every morning. The prayer sessions can last an hour. They crouch over with their heads on the floor and rattle repetitiously. I often ask God to carry me out of there on the strength of their prayers.
My Spanish is not good but sometimes I listened to them pray. I could not imagine what could take so long and requires so much theatrics. The prayers are most often repetition. They repeat things like “O great Father in heaven,” or “this precious day” in between the blessings, thanks and repents. They pray for family and friends. They pray for friends of family and friends. I wondered if I could follow their prayers back like the old game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
I got close when I heard a prayer for Evita, who was played by Madonna, who was in Dick Tracy with Warren Beatty, etc… They prayed for freedom. They prayed for the other cells. They prayed for the freedom of each person in each of the 22 cells. I listened to one man as he prayed for each animal that entered Noah’s Arc.
“Oh gracious Father, great Papi in heaven, please bless the father zebra, the patriarch of the zebra family as he ascends the long ramp into the cozy arc. Oh Papi please bless the mama zebra with all her beautiful stripes glistening in your heavenly rain, walking alongside papa zebra. Oh heavenly Father, Lord of all Lords, King of all Kings, bless that poor little baby zebra still suckling on mama zebra’s tit. Blood of Christ has Power! That baby zebra whose legs are all weak and wobble on his trip up the slippery wet ramp next to mama zebra…”
As I said, my Spanish is not good; so I may not have interpreted it exactly. By using wet toilet paper stuffed into my ears I was able survive the religious assault, my senses intact.
Return to Cell 22
My mother, friends attorney and my personal angel were all working furiously to have me moved out of general population. Bribes, donations and two doctor’s orders were ignored by the Commissioner. Luckily, he was moved to another position within the department. As promised weeks before I was moved back to Cell 22. Maybe the new Commissioner would be more gracious than the old Commissioner. He was not.
The common misconception
When you go to jail you are inundated with advice. Everyone becomes a lawyer. What an ugly world. Prisoners, friends, lawyers and even family pet all say the same thing — with a little money put in the right hands even the most perverse serial rapist can be free to drive away in his black van within days. Maybe that is true in many cases.
In my case I was dealing with an extremely irate family with influence, a lust for my blood, an obscene amount of money, or both. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent by my family for my defense and survival. There was absolutely no real evidence that the accident was my fault or that I even broke a law. Yet, I was still incarcerated.
I was advised that I would need to accept a four-year maximum sentence or spend months in jail awaiting trial in which I would be sentenced to the maximum of four years. By accepting the sentence it would be impossible for the family to delay the process or extort money from me.
I would be eligible for a suspended sentence or be deported. Again the waterfall flowed up. The impossible was very possible. The family continued to file appeals, block paperwork and use influence to deny me my freedom for months. Meanwhile my family, friends, several lawyers and my angel worked countless hours to free me and support me in jail.
Area del sol
The Commissioner left and a new Commissioner now reigned supreme over the pit of hopelessness and despair. It is comparable to the respect you would give someone who is the boss of a pit bull fighting arena.
With the old boss out I had hope to stay the duration in peaceful Cell 22. Many bribes and donations would secure this. And I had a promise from the Captain.
The next day I was in a Bible study group with a preacher from a church that comes by once a week. I was pulled out in the middle of the sermon to be sent back to general population. The Area del Sol is a favored cell by the regulars at the Granada jail because it has air. The air comes from the fact that half the cell has no roof. All newcomers sleep outside.
The area must have been two 4×4 meter showers in the past. Now one side has a roof and the other has a latrine and tank of water but as the police spare no expense, the fifty dollars was not spent to cover the other half.I was assigned a spot half a meter from the latrine. Again a few pieces of cardboard and a plastic bottle became my bedding.The first night was clear and breezy. I laid on the cold wet cement and watched the stars. I had a conversation with God. Maybe this cell would not be so bad. Once again I assumed wrong.
The 26 men in the cell each used the one latrine that was centimeters from my face. The first night was full of noises and smells that would rival a baboon cage at a condemned zoo in which the animals had been forgotten.
The real horror came at 4:30 am. I don’t know why 4:30 am is such a popular time for things to start in the Nicaraguan penal system but Nicaraguan logic is an oxymoron. At 4:30 the creaking doors open and 26 other less fortunate men are ushered in to empty their urine and feces into the latrine.
They each carried two gallon milk containers with the tops cut off. The smell would make a buzzard vomit. They all stripped naked and used the tank to bathe. I stood against the wall and tried to hide my disgust.
The next night I slept in the rain. It was very cold. I used a t-shirt to wear on my legs. My cardboard was soaked and disintegrating. The cold and wet were more powerful than my need to sleep. I stood with my back against the wall. I hoped my underground methods of sending messages had reached my family.
Visiting day was three days later. I was told my mother, lawyer and angel were in Managua at the U.S. Embassy and police internal affairs. Three more days passed and my mom and angel showed up with an official order in hand to move me to a better cell. I was moved back to Cell 22.
La Sistema (The Penitentiary)
My new, ever-gracious Commissioner was not happy about being trumped. He decided to rid himself of my nuisance. The wonderful people who were defending my rights had another small victory.
Once again I was loaded into the cage truck to go to prison. With standard police efficiency the prison rejected me because the paperwork was incomplete. I was back in the cage truck and back in Cell 22.
I finally met my wonderful host that evening. He came by to ask where my passport was. I told him the police had it but I would have my mother look for it when she came to visit.
When my mother visited the next day we were called into the Commissioner’s office. The Commissioner began yelling at us in Spanish about my passport. My mother, who speaks no Spanish, stood by my side horrified. I finally lost my temper and explained to him that I have rights. I asked if he would like to tell the U.S. State Department and my lawyer that. His bulbous face was red and bitter. I told him my lawyer would bring a copy tomorrow. He insisted my mother bring the real passport. The next day the lawyer dropped off a copy of my passport.
Five days later I was in the cage truck for my 38th and final trip. I was successfully delivered to the penitentiary. My time in the Granada jail was like walking over a canyon of snakes on a toilet paper bridge in the rain. At any second you are bound to fall and get bitten.
I might be the first person ever to be happy and relieved to be put in a third world prison. I am not bothered too much by the other inmates. Comparatively, the prison is a heavenly cottage. The gangsters who do bother me are thieves and murderers who were so stupid that they were caught by an investigative team that could not find a stripe in an arc full of zebras. If they did then then would not not know which color was the stripe.
Now my life hangs from strings made of plastic bags — prison recycling.
This article firsta appeared on Today Nicaragua, reposted with permission