I went to visit one of my local friends today. Visiting friends is hardly a topic for a post but since the visit took place in the Carcel Centrale (federal prison), it’s not your typical visit.
The prison is located just off the busiest street in the shopping area, 3 blocks from San Jose and 18 de Julio. Visitors are allowed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Visiting hours on Thursday are from 11:30 to 13:30. They limit the total number of visitors so it’s best to get there early. If you come after 12:30, you wont be allowed in. Once you’re in, you do not leave until 13:30. There are no exceptions to that rule.
The line up starts around 11:15 at the San Jose entrance. At 11:30, they open the doors and allow people to enter, 5 at a time. They ask you for ID. Everyone produces cedulas, which they keep. You are asked if you have any electronic devices, like cellphones. If you do, you give them to the clerk with your cedula and they give you a check stub. You can bring food, toiletries, bedding and clothes. The prison provides basic food and a bedsheet. It’s not heated. Visiting family and close friends bring provisions, sheets and blankets to last until the next visit. They take laundry back with them.
After you hand over your cedula and tell them who you’re coming to see, you walk to another area where you are frisked. There are 2 little rooms. One for ladies and one for men. I made the mistake of going into the next available room. The matron sternly reprimanded me as I pleaded the language excuse. As she pointed to the room beside hers, a man came out and I figured it out. I walked in, took off my vest and handed it to the guard. I was searched once before, in NYC, by US customs so I have a little experience with the process. Thankfully this wasn’t as thorough.. no gloves. He ignored the vest and patted me down. Finding nothing of interest, he sent me off to the next room.
I went through another checkpoint and found myself in the visitor’s room. It was 8m x 8m, had plenty of seats and benches, and a beverage machine. I walked up to a guard and told him who I was visiting. He called out to another guard who appeared with my friend. He had a big smile on his face and was happy to see me. I asked what do we do now and he said let’s introduce you to my friends.
His friends were, in no particular order, a bank president, a well known doctor, a navy lieutenant, an ex president of OSE (the national water company), an ex vp of another major utility and finally the most unfortunate (sacrificed), member of the La Pasiva family. He was the guy running the concession booth in the visitors room. I was introduced to them one by one, in English and they replied, most of them in very good English.
Today, at this time, all the inmates were high profile, highly educated, members of Uruguayan society. I should have guessed it when I was standng outside in the line. Most were nicely dressed and well behaved. I wouldnt be surprised if this group of inmates held board meetings during the week and gave free consultas to prison staff.
My friend took me around the corner to the prison ‘yard’. It looked like a larger version of my ‘aire y luz’ here in the house. The building is squarish and large. In order to get light and air into the all the rooms/cells, you create a courtyard in the middle. It had a brick floor and was old, but clean. The visitor’s room was also run down, but clean. These aren’t the kind of prisoners who write grafiti on the walls. These people are more comfortable with spreadsheets.
He bought a diet coke and we sat down to talk. A few minutes later, his mom and a cousin came in. A half hour later, a friend from the office came in. There are no limits to the amount of visitors for an inmate. Several had what looked like a large portion of their family, including small children and babies. It was a very relaxed, jovial atmosphere. The guards were talking to visitors, and vice versa. It wasnt a formal process.
There was a cat that served as the prisoners’ mascot. Almost every group had at least one if not two thermos/mate’s. The gourds and bombillas were moving around all over the room.
Early on, I asked him what everyone was here for. All of it was white collar crime, (you guessed that already). They are kept on the 4th floor of the prison. They do not associate with the ‘general’ population at any time. Since a lot of white collar crime is prosecuted on the political level, most of these people have political affiliations – all with the parties that are out of power at the moment. The reason they’re at this moment has a lot to do with that. Because parties change power, they must have all agreed to make this place neutral territory, lest their own people end up there when the other party takes power and be treated poorly.
As odd as this seems, all the inmate I met have not had a trial yet. Just the equivalent of our preliminary hearings. In Uruguay, you present your case in a preliminary fashion to a judge. He decides if you’re probably guilty or not. If he thinks you are, he sends you to jail. You’re in there until he decides to let you out. Your lawyer keeps bugging the judge until that happens. Sometime after that, (assuming you’re not in for a long time), you have a real trial. If you are found guilty, you are sentenced to time served. If you’re not found guilty, you’re free to go. Unfortunately, you dont get your time served back.
Because of the political component, you can be jailed even though both the state and the defense agree that the case is weak, and a guilty verdict is not likely. If the ruling party wants to make an example, or doesn’t like you, they pass this on to the judge and he jails you. In the case of the the navy guy, his boss got into a fight with the judge, (not sure if that was in the court or in chambers). The judge decided he’d had enough and put the lieutenant in jail to close the matter for the time being. I guess when his boss apologizes to the judge, (when the next opportunity arises), he may change his mind and let him out.
At the end of the visiting hours, a buzzer sounds. The inmates go to the cells and the guards close the gates to the prison. A person shows up at the exit door with 2 stacks of cedulas in hand, one for women and one for men. They read the women off one by one. You go to the door and pick up your cedula and the guard says have a nice day and you say, see you soon. When the women are done, they call the men. Same process.