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Sunday, July 1, 2007

PANAMANIAN PRISONS

PANAMANIAN PRISONS

One does not want to be in a Panamanian prison! In previous Blogs I indicated that Panama is a safe place to live, and it is, but this is not to say there are no criminals here. And many of them are in prison. One does not usually read about these things in the travel brochures but it is a part of the Panamanian landscape – a story which should be told.

Today I visited a Panamanian prison, called here a penitentiary. I visited a friend who was arrested one month ago for a very foolish reason. My friend is a tour guide who brings tourists around entire Panama.

Apparently, and I emphasize apparently, because thus far I have heard three different versions of the story of what happened and today I expect to hear yet another version (which by the way I eventually did – You know how these things work) one day my friend was asked by someone to take him from Panama City to Colon, a trip of about 1-1.5 hour drive usually costing about $50.00. How do you like that last sentence? It could well be one resembling German construction. While on his way to Colon or when he arrived there, he was stopped by the police who confiscated the client’s suitcase containing 5 million dollars. My friend had $2,000 in his pocket, money similar to what was in the suitcase, probably in $100 bills. A common Panamanian usually does not have that amount of money in his pockets. He told the police the money was the proceeds from selling his car. Since he could not provide proof and since the story was a bit incredulous, he was imprisoned.

Prison is a tough place, 800+ individuals in the penitentiary I was visiting. At one time while outside the prison I heard the prisoners singing. I was told they were singing in the church within the prison. Outside in front of the prison there was a large statue of Jesus Christ with arms outstretched as if welcoming individuals to enter.

Parenthetically, and perhaps sarcastically, I have for sometime believed that Christ lives in prisons, not the churches. What else could one assume when so many individuals find Christ in prison. I know this may sound sarcastic as I said but let’s be real here.

There are about 60 people waiting in line to visit 800 prisoners. Considering there can be up to 2 individuals visiting one prisoner, there are many not being visited. What a lonely place!

During my lifetime I have been fortunate not to have known many who were in jail. I will relate the two times I visited prison. Once I visited an ex waitress who previously worked in my restaurant. She apparently attempted to engineer the murder of another girlfriend of her boyfriend. No one in my restaurant thought she was capable of such a thing. I could not believe it. But, there she was convicted. You never know as The Shadow would say “what evil lurks in the hearts of men” – but a woman at this time!

Another time I visited a homeless man whom I believed was imprisoned unjustly because he used to sit on a bench across the street from the main Post Office and the post Office authorities did not like for him to sit there.

I talked with this man for 30 minutes as I thought I might be able to help him. He just sat there looking at the floor motionless. Finally I asked him whether he would like a job in my restaurant. All of a sudden he exhibited signs of life. Looking up at me he said: “no way!” At that point, I left thinking the man was where he ought to be or supposed to be. After all, I am not the God of Infinite Wisdom and Patience. I am just another very human traveling on Planet Earth.

I got unwanted press at the time with a story in the local paper: “Dr. Tauraso visits homeless man in prison.” I did not tell anyone what I was doing, but the local newspaper was publishing a story about this man almost daily. He had become a celebrity, about his sitting daily on the bench across the street from the main Post Office until they put a stop to this, and one time the man was found urinating on someone’s front yard. So what, dogs do it, cats do it. They are truly free. But a human? That is a no no. But with this celebrity status of this homeless man, When I visited him, it also became front page news. Eventually, the man found his way to Sykesville State Hospital and, after medicating him for schizophrenia, where he became quite normal, until about a year later he reverted to his old ways because he stopped taking his medicines. Life is complicated! Is that not the truth.

Back to the Panamanian prison, we were supposed to be there at one P.M., but as everything else in Panama they opened for visitors late. Apparently, there was a problem within the prison, a riot perhaps, that required partial lock down. This prison was big, about a city block square.

Finally they let 30 people through the gate and we were asked to stand together in an area to the left. Since I had number 22, I entered with the first wave. I was told by a friend who accompanied me to leave my watch, ring, eyeglasses and penknife in my vehicle. Most of us were women with plastic bags of food and other sundry items. I saw one woman with a roll of toilet paper and a disposable razor, but most of the bags were filled with food. A uniformed guard directed the women to a table where the contents of their bags were inspected for the first time. I was asked by the chief guard to enter the small kiosk where the guard had been standing issuing numbers. He checked my passport and pensionado ID card and directed me to empty the contents of my pockets on the table, which I did. He told me to put my hat in my car, and he proceeded to inspect my wallet. There were 7 $20 bills which he told me I could not bring into the prison so I gave the money to my friend through the open window of the kiosk. The guard did not care about the 20 $1.00 bills, only the 20's.

He then directed me to spread eagle my legs. Placing both hands up and down my legs high up into my crotch. They had no hi tech electronic wands or devices. It was quite an experience. As directed, I proceeded to another holding area and after another 30 minutes another armed guard dressed in black, the others were in dark tan uniforms, sat at a table at the beginning of a very long outdoor corridor. He recorded my Passport number in a book and stamped the back of my hand. Only men had their hands stamped. I felt either special or that I had been profiled. But who cares. In such events one keeps his mouth shut and does what he is told.

Finally after waiting another 10 minutes at the end of this long corridor up the stairs and into the building we went into another holding area on the second floor. The women with plastic bags stood in one area until they were summoned to a table were each plastic container was carefully examined for the second time, opened and probed to insure there were no contraband items within the containers. Women had to line up on one side of a long table and I, the only man there at the time, was asked to stand on the other side. Every so often three women were summoned by a female guard who took them through a door which turned out to be a bathroom. Eventually, I was summoned by a male guard and was directed into another door adjacent to the one the women entered. My door was labeled men’s room, theirs was the ladies’ room. Once within the room I had to empty my pockets again. They confiscated my car keys giving me a numbered stub in return.

I thought Homeland Security at the US airports were thorough, but entering a Panamanian penitentiary was something else. I was not asked to take off my shoes. Did you know that ONLY in the US does one have to take their shoes off before going through airport security? I once boarded a Panamanian plain to go to one of the islands. Although I should have known better, I had a penknife which they confiscated giving me a ticket stub. At the end of the trip, my knife was returned to me. I thought that was a kind gesture. Don’t expect that to happen in the US.

Accompanied by my friend’s mother and girlfriend, mother of his child, I saw my friend who did appear fine and happy to see us. He lives in a cell with about 8 individuals and one toilet. He likes his cell mates and many of them share the food they get from their relatives and one different person takes turns cleaning the cell including the toilet. I bought a quart of pineapple and two pints of apple juice for $1.50. I was thirsty. We were all in a very large room, about 100 feet square, which they called a “block.” It was warm but not hot. There were many prisoners there representing all colors and ethnic backgrounds, reasonably so because people who get into trouble with the law represent a cross section of the general population. My friend seemed happy and vowed not to get in similar trouble again. This man is a happy man who does not have a mean bone in his body, but he made a mistake, and he, unfortunately, made the mistake in Panama. Because he lacks money and resources, we do not know how long he will be processed through the court system. He may be there for months. We are trying to secure his early relief, but here in Panama, the wheels of justice move very slowly, except, of course, if you have money. The world is the same all over, isn’t it?

Other than the above, life in Panama is good and I love it here.

nicola michael c. Tauraso, M.D.

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