A CONTEMPLATION OF
"The stench was enough to gag you," was all that Gary Maynard would say after he got back. He was talking about the informal AIDS ward we had walked through at Tacumbú, the big, overcrowded prison on the outskirts of Asunción. I was surprised. A slender, intense man with a deceptively easy-going demeanor, Gary had been the head of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections for 5 years, and before that, the warden at McAlister, where he had carried out the executions of at least three deathrow inmates, and had been there for all the prison riots, and the big changes that had to take place to reform Oklahoma prisons during the 70s and 80s. He was also a retired general in the Oklahoma National Guard and thus, presumably, used to less-than-ideal conditions. We were there as a part of six-person team from the U.S. hired by the Paraguayan Ministry of Justice and Labor to recommend changes, provide training, and to help secure financing for construction projects. Of the twenty or so official and unofficial prisons in Paraguay, we were here to visit three within the Asunción city limits.
It was my 13th or 14th trip to Paraguay, and my fourth visit to Tacumbú. I wasn’t surprised by conditions, but neither was I immune to the human degradation and the erosion of conscience that occurred at every level. Thank god it was not a hot day. The smells were bearable, and tempers were under control, with the exception of a few vociferously desperate inmates who screamed at me to let them tell me the real story – what was really going on in this most forgotten of hellholes, where Elizabeth Nietzsche had founded a white supremacist utopian community in the 1880s, and Nazi war criminals had instructed the Paraguayan secret police in the most effective methods of torture. Torture rarely took place in the prisons, according to sources. The most heinous torture tended to be reserved for political prisoners since there were fewer consequences in maiming those of the disenfranchised or at least politically marginalized. During Stroessner’s time, torture took place at the central police department, just down the street from the presidential palace.
Actually, conditions in Tacumbú had improved since we were there in May. Now we were coming off winter and the spring heat had not yet made itself felt in late September. Now there were fewer prisoners (by a hundred or so, due to legal reforms), and the Paraguayan officials had installed a new kitchen (in which they prepared vegetable stew and other nutritious items which were completely uninteresting to the Paraguayan palate, which tended to prefer the heavy corn, cheese, and meat dishes of chipas, chipa guasu, carne mascada, with lots of mandioca and tere-ré). In addition, there was a new infirmary in which the sick could rest (but not much more because there were no medicines), and there was a new shower / latrine area. New materials were given to the inmates, in the form of personal hygiene items, a blanket, and a new mattress. In addition, the inmates had received a medical assessment, and there were records on each inmate, which included medical and criminal history. This was something new, and it allowed the prison administrators to separate out the ones with active tuberculosis and the ones dying from AIDS.
Like Mayan temples in the Guatemalan wilds, these half-built, half-eroded cellblocks were monuments to a bizarre combination of good intentions and abject venality, mixed with power and elitism. As in Chiapas or Guatemala, they were covered by climbing vines and other kinds of noxious jungle growth. This was a monument to a vast slippage will – somewhere along the way, the Tupi-Guarani heritage that stressed communal well-being had been erased in the wake of rampant alcoholism, substance abuse, and despair. Somewhere, the Catholic notion of distributive justice and concern for the poor had slipped into something akin to “steal it IF you can, WHILE you can, WHENEVER you can, HOWEVER you can.” I had collected about $5,000 of medical donations to give to the Paraguayan’s children’s prison. It was patently evident that any donations would, post-haste, be sold and socked away in someone’s Miami account. I gave the donations to a friend in Sumgait, Azerbaijan instead. Azerbaijan is known for being a tad corrupt as well, but it was the principle of the thing.
What turns people into such heartless wretches? During the Cold War, the old Marxist ideology went something like this: “We are at the stage of Socialism now – but if we work hard together, eventually, we’ll achieve PURE COMMUNISM.” That was such a utopian concept. During the 1960s, Che Guevara (born just 200 miles from here), preached his violent, by-any-means-necessary, jihad-tinged brand of utopian Marxism. Nirvana was just around the corner.
Sadly, it turned out to be not achievable. In fact, Che and his ilk turned out to be as elitist and exclusionary as anyone else, using the poor as pawns and cannon fodder. They called them “idiotas utiles” in Paraguay – a term still used for anyone who is conveniently used for someone else’s gain. In the worst-case scenario, you’re human toilet paper. When they’re finished, they flush you down the toilet, with the same amount of regard given you as the real paper.
Oh, well, it’s true enough that when I hear Che’s inflammatory rhetoric (downloadable from .wav files on the Internet), I get worked up. Yes, it’s true enough – consumerism is bestialization. To be driven only by the sensation – the thrill of novelty, and to be cured of angst and introspection by the diversion-cum-entertainment activity of incessant consumerism – leads to an animalizing mindlessness. What’s worse is the notion that you can reinvent yourself by buying your new persona-du-jour. While this is partially true (appearances do matter, after all – our ideas of meaning are too semiotically driven to escape that), it is also vitally not true. So, the comfortable notion that perhaps painful instrospection is not necessary, nor is disciplining one’s mind in order to be deliberately constructivist (albeit positivistic) vis-à-vis the world of phenomenon, proves itself to be pathetically inadequate. In the Paraguayan prisons, they say that Paraguayan prisoners are fairly passive – all it takes is one Argentine to create a problem. Apparently, most Argentines are a lot like Che was – they mouth off a lot.
I returned to the world of Tacumbú. Here in the shadows of Jesuit missions, and utopian dreamers who wanted to help save the Guarani Indians from the rapacity of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns, who sought gold, and if not gold, crops such as yerba mate, sugar, and cotton harvested from vast plantations they called “latifundios.” When Paraguay gained its independence from Spain in the early 19th century, the first leader of the country, a xenophobic dictator named “Dr. Francia” sealed the borders and insisted that the Paraguayans import no European luxury goods, but that all be manufactured in-country. It was also against the law to marry a foreigner. As a result, women began to develop lovely lace, crochet, and embroidered fabrics which are still in use today – nanduti, ao po-i, etc. with designs unaltered since colonial days. The sealed-off borders led to a profound suspicion of the outside, and when President Lopez decided to declare war on Argentina and Brazil, the Paraguayans fought valiantly. The results were spectacularly ugly. The same was true with other wars led by megalomaniacal dictators and self-anointed leaders with internecine urges. By the time Stroessner assumed power, the country was all too happy to profit (at last) from its history of isolation and quirky refusal to play by the rules. So, Paraguay became a major informal duty-free zone, attracting droves of Argentines and Brazilians attracted to cheap electronics, knock-off consumer goods, pirated software, pirated music, untaxed cigarettes, alcohol, false documents, and any other contraband item that could make quick profits for the people in power. With an economy based on the deliberate flaunting of international trade regulations, and its workforce engaged in de facto illegal activities, who could possibly have the nerve to judge one’s brother? Who could be so hypocritical? Clearly, prisons in Paraguay did not serve the same function as in other countries. They were either convenient business centers for the efficient administration of scams and contrabanding, or they were places to punish those who failed to live up to expectations.
We went around the corner to the Travesti Pabellon. In English, this would translate to the “Transvestite Cell Block.” It was a decrepit one-story building filled with filthy pots and pans and dirty beds. There were six transvestites living there, separated from the general population to protect them from the other population. At least that was the story. I suspected that the reality was that this was a brothel of sorts. The transvestites were not the only homosexuals in Tacumbú. However, they were the only ones who identified themselves as “female” and who were either taking hormones to grow breasts and lose facial hair, or were simply dressing as women. Most of the transvestites had worked a certain area near downtown Asunción where a kind of rough trade had developed with anonymous clients driving up in limousines. The transvestites didn't have pimps, but they often had to defend the best corners from the newcomers who wanted the territory. This led to a significant amount of stabbings and gunshot wounds. They were also often harassed by the police. Many were arrested many times, but not all ended up here -- just the most unlucky. Here in Tacumbú, most seemed to be pretty obviously addicted to something -- perhaps heroin, perhaps something else.
The travestis were not dressed in prison uniforms (the prison didn’t have any anyway), but they were not dressed in drag (to my disappointment). Actually, they seemed pretty depressed. Outside their cellblock was a patch of dirt with a few deep holes, partially filled in. I asked what the deep holes were for. They were about four feet deep, and were between two buildings.
"That's where the prisoners did "Kambo-shu" to the ones who misbehaved."
"What's Kambo-shu?" I asked.
"It's Guaraní. It means Cambodia -- the prisoners saw what the Cambodians did to U.S. prisoners of war, and they liked the concept. They buried prisoners up to their necks and left them there in the heat of the day. Sometimes they poured sorghum molasses on their heads to attract ants."
Still, this “trasvesti” cellblock was starting to get to me. I had just read a series of articles and interviews in the newspaper, Noticias, of the transvestite street-hustlers near downtown Asuncion. They talked about their lives and their need for acceptance. They also talked about the difficulties of obtaining adequate quantities of hormones, and the high cost of surgery. After reading it, I told my friend Benito, “Hey, let’s go to a gay bar.”
I had a typically American point of view, I supposed. For me, it seemed rather absurd that people who were tortured and often killed for their sexual orientation, would be so monstrous and well-organized. To be honest, one could certainly expect aberrant behavior in this country. Anyone too repulsed by torture, sado-masochistic male-female relationships, emotional and physical blackmail, surreptitious and underground love liaisons, and a well-entrenched “favor” system, would have gotten out. It was difficult, but not impossible to leave Paraguay. It was particularly easy to get to Argentina, and then from there, go to other countries. Entrenched Guarani ways were perhaps the major impediment, plus, the realization that once one learns to swim in the polluted, dank, but predictable waters of the pond, the little fish could have comfortably parasitic relations with the big fish.
"Thank God for the prison reform effort!" I said. Inside, I wondered what had been instituted to take its place, but in secret. Nature abhors a vacuum. There would always be ways of disciplining and punishing those who strayed from the norm (no matter how perverse that "norm" may seem). I thought of the writings of Michel Foucault. I felt a bit sick.
The current Paraguayan administration was very intrigued by the idea of having a prison industry, first to supply uniforms to other branches of the government, and then branching out to agriculture and ranching. The Paraguayans were absolutely floored by the vast prison industries in Oklahoma, in which furniture, food products, horticulture items were manufactured, and basic secretarial services were provided a fraction of the cost of other services. The obvious ethical problems and conflicts of interest didn't worry the Paraguayans. They liked the idea, and could see obvious benefits. Perhaps in Paraguayan hands, prison labor would reach the extremes of the Oklahoma system, which had forced small family-owned businesses which had formerly provided services into extinction. Also, with the new private prison lobbied "truth in sentencing" and "three strikes you're out" it was imperative to find some way to make the prisons be self-sufficient, and maximize shareholder value. The Oklahoma penitentiary system was quite controversial in its utilization of prison labor, and in the number of people incarcerated (51,000 in a State with a population of 3 million. In contrast, Paraguay, with a population of 5 million, has around 6,000 prisoners).
"Do you ever have problems with Amnesty International?" asked an administrator during the three days of seminars given by the Oklahoma team to approximately 325 attendees from throughout the Paraguayan prison system. We were an interesting crew – Gary Maynard, a former Oklahoma Corrections System Director and retired Oklahoma National Guard general; James Saffle, the current Oklahoma Penitentiary System Director; Tommy Warren, the owner of the first private prisons in the state of Texas; Calvin Burgess, the owner of hotels and prisons in Oklahoma; and me, the director of training programs at The University of Oklahoma College of Continuing Education.
I was the originator of the contacts, thanks to my obsession with Paraguay and Bolivia. I was fairly content in the realization that I knew nothing of prisons. However, thanks to the dozen or so projects I had done with the Paraguayan government and private sector, I did know people throughout Paraguay, and I was the natural nexus for any sort of Oklahoma / Paraguay initiative. This realization carried with it a bit of emotional baggage, since I knew that I was often played, and that my interest in the country made me vulnerable to whatever self-promoting scheme a Paraguayan entity might come up with.
Right now, we were there to make the Paraguayan Ministry of Justice and Labor look good. Not only had I brought with me back in May a person who claimed to be able to offer $50 million of financing, I also assembled a group of experts in prison construction and administration capable of training wardens and prison officials as well as designing cost-effective prisons that could be more or less self-sustainable if prison industry could be instituted.
"Yes," replied Saffle. "We ignore the demonstrations and we pay no attention to their protests. We follow the laws of the State. We do not respond to outside influences." I cringed, although I realized that the Paraguayans admired that kind of talk. Saffle himself cut an imposing figure. He was tall, heavy-set, and had the sort of right-wing, Christian fundamentalist rigidity that Oklahoma votors seemed to like in their wardens and penitentiary directors.
Paraguayans liked raw power and strong-arm tactics. This was most clear when Lino Oviedo, a former general in Stroessner’s army, decided to run for President of the Republic of Paraguay. He was obsessed with crime and punishment, and one of his campaign promises was to “fry” the corrupt Paraguayan officials in the same way the “Texas fries its criminals.” This was dramatic, and in my opinion, deeply troubling. What made capital punishment attractive to Paraguayans? I certainly couldn’t see it. I was reminded of my conversations with Lino Oviedo's campaign manager, the one who helped organize all the spectacularly theatrical events, in which his inflammatory rhetoric excited the Paraguayans -- "Que gaucho!" - they often commented.
Saffle's sudden echo of authoritarianism aroused a little ripple of admiration mixed with hostility -- admiration that he would openly show disregard Amnesty International's attempts at moral suasion, but hostility that the giant North Americans could again operate with impunity, and disregard protests or complaints. Paraguay and Oklahoma had more in common than might be observed at first. Paraguay considered itself “El Corazon de Sud America” (The Heart of South America), while Oklahoma billed itself as “America’s Heartland.” Both had agricultural sectors characterized by the cultivation of cotton, soy, peanuts, cattle, and horses. Both had economically laggard economies. Both had large river ports that provided slow but cheap shipping -- access to the sea.
But in Tacumbú, (in contrast with the highly organized Oklahoma prison counterpart) there was an informal prison industry. Interestingly enough, the prison industry managed by inmates. Tiny pineapples, oranges, and other fruit were available at the prisoner-run cantinas -- as were any other item requested by an inmate. It was an important source of income for the "caciques" (the leaders of the gangs), who worked in collaboration with the guards. In reality, the prison was more or less self-sufficient, since little money is spent by the Paraguayan government to maintain prisoners, and most comes in the form of support from family members or friends who bring gifts and money. Visiting hours are not very restricted (particularly when one can bribe a guard for about 10,000 guaranis, or $3.00). Unless the corruption situation is changed, the current Paraguayan administration despairs of making substantial changes, since typically any state-supplied items are stolen by inmates and/or guards and sold on the street, leaving the prison itself a decrepit shell where survival is only possible if one has significant resources coming in from outside, or significant resourcefulness within in order to "work the system" and rise up in the hierarchy of prisoners.
In fact, my first visit to Tacumbú involved the “informal economy.” It was late on a Sunday night, and I was with a friend of mine – an expeditor for the Paraguayan Administration of Ports. His former boss was in prison, and my friend wanted to pay his respects. He was also delivering some money. That was necessary in order to stay out of the part of Tacumbú the Oklahoma delegation was visiting. The former president of the Colorado Party was staying in the “Tacumbú Hilton” where he had a private room with cell phone and laundry privileges. This cost about $50 per day. I’m not sure who got the money or how it was paid, but that was the price to stay out of the inferno on the other side of the “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter” gates. The other prisoners in Tacumbú “Hilton” ranged from ex-bank presidents to foreigners who had decided to hole up with their ill-gotten gains in Paraguay, thinking that non-extradition would protect them. Little did they know that it was their fate to have their nest eggs gnawed to the bone by Paraguayan “piranhas” and, once their booty was spent, they’d have their assets seized while languishing in prison on trumped-up charges. After a bit of Tacumbú, these foreign white-collar criminals took to contacting their embassies begging to be extradited back to their home country, regardless of the length of the prison sentence.
What on earth were we doing in Paraguay? What could we possibly teach Paraguayans about a “better way”? Read Brave New World a hundred times and find out, finally, how to enslave the will as well as the resources?
In contrast to Tacumbú, the women's prison seemed almost benign. Named La Casa del Buen Pastor, it had begun as a project of a local order of nuns to provide a home for wayward girls. Founded in 1830, it was located in the middle of Asunción. Although we were in the center of town, the prison itself seemed quiet, almost serene. That feeling was more pronounced in the chapel, where candles flickered around an altar and a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary, and numerous paintings of saints. The scent of rose petals and eucalyptus hung in the air.
“Why are women here?” I asked the director, a young woman who, before working as a warden, had been an accountant somewhere. She was tall, thick-waisted, wearing a tight miniskirt with a blue blazer. Her current occupation seemed to be an odd career choice, but in a country where jobs are political payoffs, lack of experience and outright incompetency are the norm.
I already knew the answer to the question. I had been given a publication by the Ministry of Justice and Labor, which detailed conditions in the women’s prisons throughout Paraguay. The publication said that most women were incarcerated for prostitution, assault and murder. In Oklahoma, most women were incarcerated for crimes against property – passing bad checks (as little as $20 was a felony), having their cars used in the commitment of a crime (the bad-boy lover uses the lady’s car to rob a convenience store), being arrested with drugs. Some were actually there for assault on abusive boyfriends, etc., but not the majority, despite the fact that Oklahoma possessed the second-highest spousal and girlfriend abuse rate in the U.S.
“Most are here at Buen Pastor because they murdered their husbands or boyfriends (concubines, as they would say),” she replied.
“Wow. How exciting,” I said. It was a joke. She laughed and said that it wasn’t all that progressive a notion – after all, usually the murder took place after years and years of abuse.
“Sometimes the women are abused by their boyfriends, and sometimes the boyfriends are molesting their daughters. So, they do something about it.”
That approach didn’t seem particularly productive to me, but who was I to judge? Again, there was a pervasive sense that the collective will to change – to actually liberate society from oppressive patronage and Mafiosi thinking – was utterly lacking. If it meant security, people seemed inclined to do it. And, the idea of delaying gratification by sacrificing and getting a real education, was also lacking. Street-smartness was valued, as was the ability to be an “expeditor” for those with money and “needs.” It was a society of a few privileged elite, and layer after layer of hangers-on and parasites. Although there were family-owned small businesses, they too, seemed to collapse upon themselves in their eagerness to please the patron. No one wanted to make waves, except to show everyone else they had influential friends. Thus, I was invited to hundreds of showers, receptions, asadas, birthday parties, dinners, and weekend trips. At first, I was flattered. Then I realized it was that I could be touted as a “powerful and very famous American” and then, they could, by extension, have access to that. So, I was a tool used to inspire envy and hunger for easily-gotten spoils.
I once read how a young girl’s very own mother “sold” her prepubescent virgin daughter to the ex-dictator Stroessner (or to one within the “magic circle”), for money, for a job for a couple of relatives, for a bouquet of roses. Was that the only way to get ahead? Certainly education wasn’t the way. If anything, the culture tended to be philistine – and, even those with five-year degrees, obtained after parking themselves in classrooms while a professor read to them from the only available book, were called “Doctor.” Chile had a great reputation for good universities. Private universities were springing up to meet the demand for documents that would allow one entry to a job. But, how was the quality? It, too, tended to be all about appearances and scam affiliations with U.S. universities of some fame. A person with a Paraguayan university degree was perhaps as ignorant as one without a degree. This was not to say that there were not intelligent professionals who had somehow managed to become educated. But, theirs was an uphill task. Those who were actually educated deserved a medal of valor, since the rewards were ephemeral, self-generated. One would have to be independently wealthy to indulge oneself in the luxury of an education, particularly in the humanities or fine arts. Of course, in that way, the U.S. was not so different. But, the same slippage of will was evident. It was just too easy to sell out, play the game, and spend one’s time making elaborate shows of loyalty rather than developing independent, creative, and deeply questioning lines of thought.
Back in the women’s prison in the middle of Asunción. We left the cool, dark recesses of the chapel and walked through the patio to the artisan area where women were making clay sculptures. The environment was fairly pleasant – mango and papaya trees shaded the walkway, and the sound of leaves rustling added a romantic quality to the scene. It was hard to believe it was a prison. Later, the hard reality was driven in when I looked at the cells – five women in each cell, a cell that was too small to house even one person. The only redeeming factor was that the women were not forced to stay inside them. They were dank, dark, fetid places.
“Our primary problem is with theft. Women steal from each other,” said one of the prison officials.
I wondered how I would manage if I happened to be in such a place. It would be fairly unpleasant, of that I was sure. Since all Americans are believed to be rich, the first thing extracted from me would be daily rent. Then, my family would be contacted for money. One might as well be a hostage – the only difference is that one is legally sanctioned by the country, the other is not.
We toured the juvenile facilities, and then the place where mothers could stay with their children until they were 2 years of age. Visitation was a daily right, with no restrictions. Perhaps it helped with separation anxiety; perhaps it merely reinforced the notion that mom was a jailbird. I didn’t know.
Life was tough for women here. There were many reasons for that, most of them historical and cultural. For example, the fact that most women were forced to fend for themselves and their various progeny was a sad reality. Thanks to the church-authorized stance on polygamy as a necessary method for repopulating the country after the disastrous Triple Alliance War, women had become accustomed to what they referred to as “irresponsible paternity.” The Triple Alliance War (Guerra de la Triple Alianza) occurred in the 1870s, when the dictator-du-jour, Mariscal Lopez, declared war on Brazil and Argentina, for reasons I never managed to clarify in my mind. It was most definitely a suicidal gesture – the tiny Paraguayan army could never hope to wipe out Brazil’s and Argentina’s better-equipped, better financed, and wildly more populous armies. Certainly the valor in the face of certain death was remarkable. Paraguayan armies fought to the death.
First, the men of fighting age were sent out, then older men, then young boys, and even at one point, women.
All were slaughtered. After the war, the country was so desperate to have men of breeding age, that they opened up the country to virtually any criminal, opportunist, or fascistically-inclined utopian experiment-monger, including Elisabeth Nietzsche and her husband’s “New Germania” white supremacist experiment somewhere in the jungles near Concepción.
When the 4,000 scraggly, ragtag male survivors were asked to help repopulate the land, it was a daunting prospect, with disproportionate rewards for the men, and nothing but extra work for the women. There were about 200 women for every man. It was a good ratio if you were a guy and you liked to shop around. It was hell for the women. They were lucky to be able to have a kid at all, and in order to snag a man, the women became masters of coquetry, seduction, and so-called feminine wiles. They really knew how to “play” a man – I had seen a couple of these former belles in action, and, to be honest, they made me nauseous. They flattered, fawned, and made Paraguayan guys feel quite stud-like and empowered.
A novelist friend of mine, Dirma, was typical. She tended to gesture with exaggeratedly (and campily) feminine motions, was persistently redolent of French perfume, and her ears, fingers, neck were always encrusted in gold and jewels. She flattered Paraguayan men to no end, which they, of course, loved.
“What an excellent woman – a true lady. Dirma knows how to be a real woman. You could learn something from her,” was Benito’s response to her.
I doubted it. Even if I had been born in Paraguay, I doubted it would have taken – I was much too independent, and could only conform for a limited amount of time. However, I could not envision myself as a person obsessed with revenge fantasies, either.
We were sitting in the lounge of the Gran Hotel del Paraguay, the one-time palace of Madame Lynch, the Irish wife of President Lopez during the 1870s. It was a pleasant place, with large ceiling fans and original murals on the walls, with Louis XIV-inspired botanicals, flowers, garlanded ladies. It was once a grand ballroom, and women wearing light, tissue-gauze dresses with hand-crochet and lace, swirled about, whirling with music as though isolation could protect one from the cruel realities of bordering countries with expansionist ideas, and a harsh world where women could not afford to not be designing, male-obsessed, and entrepreneurial. They also had to have a strong back. Women tended to pull more than their own weight.
Dirma daubed bright cherry lipstick to her lips. Her perfectly-lacquered fingertips fluttered daintily through the air like glassine hummingbird wings. She was fanning herself with a bamboo-spined fan with shiny, cardboard flowers to catch the damp, thick air and churn it into curl-inducing waftings.
She asked me, “Susan, where did you find such an excellent man??”
“I found him bribing officials at the airport,” was what I wanted to say. Of course, I said nothing more than, “Oh yes, he’s nice isn’t he.”
Virtue turns to vice, upon being misapplied; and sometimes vice, once turned, can turn to virtue. At least, that was the philosophy.
And so, men were putty in these Paraguayan women’s hands. I could never hope to understand it as one within the system could. Perhaps no one actually understood his or her actions. It was a matter of custom, of habit. It was not something necessary to understand. The continuity of a country and a people often created its own exigencies. And, it is easier to act in accordance with tradition rather than independent thought.
According to popular lore, once crossed, Paraguayan women could be harsh (vicious, in fact). Revenge was sweet. And, it built up over time. Paraguayan men on every level, had inculcated within them a sense of that impregnable and ubiquitous impunity that I saw everywhere.
In the shadow of a broad-leaved mango tree off the patio of the Casa of the Buen Pastor, I contemplated women’s lives here. Perhaps my views were too harsh. Perhaps I didn’t understand. Perhaps it was impossible for me, as an American woman, to grasp the mindset of a Paraguayan woman. I resisted understanding prison psychology. No one lived long – it was wearing, always having to watch one’s back. The conditions were abominable, health-compromising, and the psychological burden worse. Once entered into, the dualities of crime and punishment, hiddenness and shaming exposure, virgin and whore, working drudge and relentless coquette, were not easily shaken off.
We only live once. What do we live for? Sensation, adventure, finally sated curiosity? Or do we live for stability, security, future rewards and delayed gratification? How do we make the decisions that put us either firmly inside or on the margins of our society’s mores? These are questions that my contact with Paraguayan prisons put into play. They were uncomfortable and ultimately unanswerable.
The five prison industry specialists I had with me – private prison owners, directors (past and present) of state and federal prisons – did not appear to be overly affected by what they saw. They were able to hammer everything they saw and place it within a nice, neat template they could call “justice.” For me, the notion of justice was too amorphous, too culturally and temporally determined. And so, I remained deeply troubled, haunted by my own understanding of self-destructive urges. I also could understand the internalization of the crime and punishment motif, and the self-excoriating rage of self-hatred that would allow one to plunge into a life of a “trasvesti” street hooker, or one bought and sold in prison, with only a slow and humiliating death in the AIDS ward as an absolute. It was too much to tease out in one brief moment of contemplation. It would take me time, patience, and distance to begin to put this into perspective. Perhaps I never would.