Orange, red and yellow marigolds shine under the autumn sun in the star-shaped flowerbed that Damian built a year ago. A one-eyed brown cat rubs her body against the grass under the shadow of two shrubs while five children play with wooden sticks in a corner. In his garden, Damian seems huge, with his tanned skin and muscular arms. He is an expert in caring for seedlings and sprouts. His blue eyes smile as he gets up from his white plastic chair and gently hugs a flower with his hands. He checks that its petals are safe from pests and pulls up some weeds from the ground as he claims, with some pride, that he was only twelve when he started carrying a gun in his trousers. He has spent over thirty years within prison walls: gardening is the only way he has found to spend more of his life outside than inside his cell.
There is a party today in the Bernal prison. Family visits are normally organised in a closed room, but today the party is in the central courtyard: a diamond-shaped patio covered with green grass which faces the cellblocks. Damian's garden, which covers only a portion of the diamond, is transformed into a park like the ones in the outside world. Mothers, grandmothers, sisters, fathers and brothers, and kids of all ages play on the grass. In the rest of the yard, those who have visits have been arranging their white plastic tables in a row all morning in order to welcome their families. White cloths are attached to the wire fences as improvised parasols. The tables are decorated with tablecloths and completed with an assortment of mate drinking straws, plastic flasks of different colours and transparent soda bottles. When families arrive they add their tupperware filled up with food: breadcrumbed fillets, boneless baked chicken, mayonnaise in sachets without spouts, unfilled assorted cookies, sliced ham and cheese, canned peaches in syrup, transparent candies, sweet potato jam. Nothing stuffed, no raw fruits or raw vegetables: unless these manage to pass through the guards’ checks.
After eating, over a hundred people start dancing, animated by a band playing at full volume. Damian finishes a big slice of the pionono that Salvia, his wife, prepared and walks over to the garden. He sits next to her to chat and get away from the sound of the music. He is tired of living in prison. In this world with no view of the landscape, every time he digs his shovel into the ground, he feels his sentence is shrinking. One day under the sun is one less in the shade. Prison is not what it used to be. Before, the border between cops and thieves was clear: they played out a silent duel, a constant, invisible battle, clinging to dignity in every little movement. Nowadays, the prison is filled up with people that are just poor and prison is not a logical answer to poverty and homelessness.
The music still sounds strong. Damian smiles as he greets two guards who walk by, behind the wire netting fence. A few metres away from them, three little girls play on the swings while a grandmother and two men dressed in gym clothes accompany them. The smallest girl leaves her swing and quickly escapes from the sight of the adults. She runs to the corner where Damian is massaging his wife's feet. The little girl looks at him and mumbles that she wants a seedling to take home. Her father arrives running a few seconds later and apologises nervously. Damian looks at them kindly and gives the little girl the base of a green plastic bottle filled with soil and compost, containing a six-inch tall seedling. The girl walks away proudly with her gift. The father thanks Damian and reminds her daughter: the plant is for her and not for her mum who does not come to visit him in prison anymore.
* * *
He had been living in his cellblock for many years when he heard the sound of her voice for the very first time. She could hardly speak: her trembling vocal cords unveiled her anguish, fear and sorrow. He addressed her courteously, as señora. She asked him if ‘he had the keys’.1 She needed the help of an experienced prisoner, someone well versed in the inner language of the prison. She had contacted all the lawyers, agencies and social organisations she could think of but had not received any answers. Her 18-year-old son, Jakob, had been arrested. He was accused of stealing four pastries with a kitchen knife in a small shop in the neighbourhood of Palermo. His case was labelled ‘armed burglary’ and the judge had decided he should remain in jail before the trial. That could last months. Six months later, Jakob would be declared innocent and released from prison, but on the day she called he was being held in the same maximum-security prison as Damian.
At first, he struggled to understand what she needed to ask because her words blended with sobs, sighs and tears. A few hours earlier, she had received a phone call from her son. It was winter and Jakob was shivering. He had not eaten for 48 hours. He was in his underwear, had no mattress and had spent two nights doing push-ups to keep up his body heat. He could not bear this any longer. He had decided he would kill himself if he had to stay like that for another night. Salvia believed he really could commit suicide because it was the first time since his arrest that he had asked for help. Laws and lawyers could not help at that time. “All that was for tomorrow, but this was happening now.” Through a friend of her ex-husband, she managed to get in touch with Damian. She phoned him directly in prison. Damian refused to help her at first but she insisted: “I know you know the law of criminal enforcement by heart and that you have tricks up your sleeve. You're the only one that can do something about it.” Two hours later, Jakob had received a mattress, a blanket and food: he was out of danger.
They talked on the phone every morning for several months before she summoned the courage to visit Damian. At first, he called only to ask her to buy phone cards for him. Soon after, he started needing to hear her voice in order to wake up. They spoke a little about everything. The two had spent their teenage years in the same neighbourhood and he remembered he had seen her catching a bus once: she was the beauty queen of the area. She had never seen him before. He asked her about the neighbours who were still living there and recommended her books to read. She felt his calls were the oxygen she needed and that he was the only one who could understand her. They could talk for hours. Slowly, he taught her the art of survival in prison. She wrote his advice in a notebook and built up a list of useful tips to pass on to her son: "If you cut a piece of the green blanket that I sent you, which is light and thin, and you wet it a little bit, it hits hard as a whip. It protects you and you can also wear it like a poncho: it will cover you if you get stabbed and it is easy to manoeuvre.”
* * *
The image of a policeman taking her handcuffed son away from her is still shuddering in Salvia’s heart. In a second, she saw 18 years of care and love pass by like a fleeting film. When Jakob had a fever and she lay on his bed to tell him stories. When he cried before the school play because he did not want to dress as a soldier. When he refused to receive anaesthesia at the dentist. When he started going out with his friends to parties and she took turns with other parents to pick them up and bring them home safe. When she allowed him to invite his friends home because she preferred them there than on the streets. In a second, she saw his wrists handcuffed and his body torn away from her.
She knew nothing about the place where they were taking him. For the first few months, she convinced herself that he was in a boarding school. When he first arrived at the prison, Jakob told her that his cell-mates were nice. So she was very surprised when a few weeks later she received an anonymous call: if she did not take clothes and other items to the next day-visit, Jakob’s cell mates were going to kill him. It was 3am and she immediately phoned the reception of the prison. “Hello. Please be careful because there are bad guys in the building who want to kill my son,” she said. The guard on duty laughed loudly at her and hung up. A few days later, Jakob told her that he had been punished. She immediately went to the prison and asked to speak with its director. When she asked him why they had scolded her son, he stared at her incredulously and said, “Excuse me, don't you understand this is not a kindergarten?”
She only started to understand how the world of the prison worked when she started talking with Damian. His words saved her from lying on the sofa, crying and listening to the same Joan Manuel Serrat album over and over again. Sophie and Lukas, her two younger children, were 11 and 14 years old and did not understand what was going on. Her friends could not believe that she was receiving help from a thief and that she no longer trusted the police or the justice system. The lawyer she had chosen for Jakob was the only one who advised her wisely: do everything that Damian tells you to do. Her psychoanalyst also gave her some sensible tips: go and visit him in jail.
* * *
From their first kiss to their wedding, only three months went by. Their lips touched in the third meeting they had in the visiting room. It was the sweetest kiss she had ever received. The wedding was very simple. Their civil marriage was a collective ceremony which ended with a daylight wedding night. There were no flowers or champagne, only two hours of love and pleasure in a filthy little room without windows. When the scheduled time for ‘conjugal visits’ was over, he stayed in his cell while she took the bus back to her house in Villa Crespo. Her family and friends did not go to the wedding: they were all furious with her and thought she was mad to go through with it. A woman she had met in the queue on visiting days waited for her outside the prison and gave her a hug. They were not friends, but she had also married in prison and knew what it felt like to start a married life totally alone.
The church marriage caused much more fuss. Prison Service officials had to remove the nylon over the Virgin Marys to inaugurate the chapel: it was the first time it had been opened in 10 years. It was not easy to get the priest inside the prison to perform the ceremony. At first, he offered to come on the ‘Holy Innocent's day’. But on that occasion he did not show up and they had to postpone the wedding. A friend from Salvia's childhood, her husband and their ten-year-old son dressed as groomsmen for the day: they were the only witnesses of the marriage. By then, Salvia’s tummy already showed her four-month pregnancy.
Her waters broke in the same room where they had had their first kiss. It was Salvia's fourth child and she already knew all about contractions. She went back immediately to her house, looked for her bag and another friend she had met during visitations picked her up in a car to take her to the hospital. Damian witnessed the prenatal exercises from the other side of the phone. When she was about to give birth, she decided to hide her cell phone in a shoebox: she needed some quiet time to be able to push. He saw his baby son, Peter, when he was a few days old. He appeared in the room escorted by two Prison Service officers.
* * *
Damian has had more fights in prison than he cares to count. He experienced what it feels like when your skin does not see the sun for weeks in prison during the dictatorship and he has toured the cellblocks of more than ten different institutions during democracy.
He does not want to remember the number of bodies he has seen dying in prison and he is terrified by the idea of becoming one of them. He knows that he can disguise himself as a harlequin to entertain ‘outsiders’ when they come to visit him in jail. He can try to smile, but when the sun goes down the fear of death returns. There is a background to all this and it's no joke. The bones, the body, the soul – everything that dies in prison stays in prison and cannot become free. The only way to be free is to die free. If you die fighting, at least you have the consolation that you did what you could do to remain alive. But there is nothing more terrible than to die of old age in prison.
This is the concept of life that is shared within these walls: you, in the world outside, do not understand because you cannot value life as much as we do. Life in here needs to be protected for the sake of life itself. We, as prisoners, must fight to stay alive, every day, every second, twenty-four hours a day. Never leave anyone lying on the floor. Because in the dungeons, when the doors are closed, anything can happen. We are fighting for our lives, despite and against everything. We cannot let ourselves die inside.
Those who have long sentences always talk about these things. The souls who die in their arms stay with them. They feel a responsibility for every one. Because they did not know how to protect them, because they did not foresee the blow in advance, they did not manage to save them. In these critical moments, when the person leaves the body, the soul registers in the bones of those who remain alive. And these souls help you to cross the street, these souls need you and they'll tell you when to cross and what to do.
It’s the 17th of May 2013. Dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, 87 years old, was found dead in prison that morning while he was serving his life sentence. Everyone is talking about this in the cellblocks.
* * *
When he was informed that he may be able to leave prison for a few days to visit his family, Salvia panicked. She needed someone to talk to. She felt she wouldn’t know what to do with him, “this man who comes, knocks on your door and you say 'welcome'. And, suddenly, two worlds with different times and logics meet.” In her mind, it was like passing “from one jungle to another: one is behind bars and the other one is outside. And in this jungle, in my house, I had my children.”
She began meeting with women she had met in the queue at the prison. They met in her living room or in cafes. Those who had been through that experience advised the others on how to cope. Salvia learnt how to use a computer and the internet. She sent emails to all the addresses she thought could help. She was convinced that, just as AA groups existed, there should be some sort of assistance in place for the family of a prisoner. The most concrete answer she got was an email from the Ministry of Social Development that said “Madam, why don't you create an NGO?”
She had never heard that acronym before, but went on to do some research. A human rights organisation gave them a hand to put the idea into practice and they founded an NGO. Since then, every Monday at 5pm she hurries to arrive on time for their weekly meetings. From five until late in the evening they build a space for advice, laughter and occasional tears where families listen and respond to queries, and discuss the fears they face. Several of the women who met in the beginning keep on going; Salvia is never absent. Her cell phone receives urgent appeals 24 hours a day from prisoners and families. A father crying because his son still has the bullet that the police shot at him in his head and he’s not receiving medical care in prison. A confused woman who does not understand the language of her daughter’s lawyers and gets dizzy looking for a copy of the case in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the courts. A frightened girlfriend who needs someone to explain to her how to get to prison on visiting days. A recently released man desperately seeking a job to avoid ending up in jail again. And many, many more than Salvia can bear denouncing beatings, torture and punishment in prison.
* * *
Saturday. Nine o'clock. Peter, a 7 year-old boy, tries to take his playmobile cowboy-house down from a shelf. He holds it tightly with both arms, but the walls of the house wobble and fall spreading pieces all over his bed. He screams and starts to cry. Sophie, his 20 year-old sister, stops sewing her costume for the community hall play, and hugs him. She helps him to build the house again. Jakob appears in the living room with a sleepy face and asks if anyone is interested in having a barbeque that night. They all say they would and he goes back to his room. Lukas, who is 23, is fixing his motorcycle in the street outside the house.
Their mother, Salvia, eats her toast quickly while she begins to undress behind the doors of a brown closet. With some effort, she puts on her new blue jeans and a fresh white blouse with broidery ribbons. In twenty seconds, she folds the sofa bed transforming her room into a common living room. She grabs the keys from the table and says goodbye to Sophie and Peter with a hug. Peter looks at her, opening his black eyes wide and pressing his lips as if he is about to say something, but he says nothing. She asks him to behave and reminds Sophie to take him to school at noon. She opens the front door and walks the two blocks to the closest supermarket.
“One pionono, a medium sachet of mayonnaise without a spout, 200 grams of sliced ham, 200 grams of sliced cheese, a kilo of bread, a jar of instant coffee.” She can buy soda-pops in the canteen. They kill you with the price but at least you do not have to carry them all the way. She is not sure if the pionono will pass. They do not generally let such things through, but Damian loves pionono so she will at least try. She also takes a bar of chocolate for the afternoon so they can sit in the garden and eat it together. That is enough for today. On Sundays she usually takes more stuff so he can use it all week, but today there is a party in the maximum-security prison of Bernal.
She pays the bill, walks two blocks towards the main avenue and rides on bus number 87 which takes her to the train station. Walking along the railway, she reaches the Bingo hall and finds the white vans that go to the prison. She pays for her ticket and sits down. Her phone rings. It’s Damian. It is the seventh time he has phoned her today. He wants to know how far she is from the prison. He can't wait to see her.
— Based on a true story. Names have been changed to preserve anonymity. For more information on the issues raised, please email the author.
1. Prison slang phrase to refer to a leader in prison. (The Spanish phrase, ser poronga, is stronger, poronga meaning ‘dick’.)