Going To Prison In Panama: A Cautionary Tale

A Cautionary Expat Tale: My Day In A Panamanian Prison

I sat under the sunny skies, chatting with my friend Dean on his patio on the pleasant little island of Taboga, when we were interrupted by a phone call which, from my one-sided hearing, sounded bizarre.

“What was that frantic-sounding phone call all about?” I asked him.

“I have this friend in prison for the past five years here in Panama, William. He has no family or friends here, so I help him out with a little money each month… and he’s a little desperate for a few bucks right now.”

Dean said he knew William when he was a street hustler here in Panama City, procuring things for gringos and other tourists—legal or illegal. William was raised in New York City but was deported to his birthplace of Panama for selling marijuana.

This narrative was starting to ring a familiar bell… “Is William’s last name Hill?”

“Yes,” he said, taken aback. “You know him?”

“I haven’t heard from William in over five years, someone said he moved to the Atlantic side to ply his trade with gringos in Bocas del Toro.”

“No,” Dean replied, “he has been rotting away in a horrible Panamanian prison for the past five years, and he has a few more years to go.”

Hearing this, it might have been easy for me to dismiss William as another wayward con man to forget… but we had a lot of history together…

I met him when I first moved to Panama, and he spoke perfect English, not-so-perfect Spanish, and was a witty, intelligent, friendly, charming man of about 35 years (he is 41 now). He was likable and fun to be around.

When I met him I was a bit wayward myself, albeit a successful businessman after having moved my 20-year business here from the States. Over time, we became close friends.

How did he end up in prison? This is his alleged story…

A gringo asked William to buy a television and to take it to his hotel room. Easy job, easy money.

He then asked William to return the next day to pick it up. It had been prepared for shipping, and he was told to send it to the United States.

(It never occurred to William that no one would buy a TV in Panama and go to considerable expense to ship it to the States when TVs are cheaper there, no shipping needed.)

Overnight, it had been stuffed with cocaine.

William, who said he had no idea, was promptly arrested. Bingo—a 10-year prison sentence.

I decided to join Dean in sending William a little money each month, but I kept thinking about the fact that William, in his years of incarceration, had never had a visitor. To boot, the correctional system here is not what it is back home. Here, you get nothing but food and water; family is expected to supply any other creature comforts. No soap, no clothes, no toilet paper, no extra food to buy… nada.

So I went on a shopping spree and paid him a visit…

The Orange T-Shirt

William had just been transferred to La Gran Joya prison, the newest prison in Panama, located east of Tocumen from the city. (In case you’re wondering, it’s a US$60 cab ride from the city.)

All visitors must wear orange T-shirts, which you can rent outside of the prison for a dollar, I found out… but the prospect of donning a shirt previously worn by hundreds of sweaty visitors did not appeal. I had to leave to buy one, and return another day.

I called my friend Ismael. At night, he preaches in various churches, but by day, he drives this beat-up old taxi. Ismael speaks English, but, more importantly in this context, he’s 6′ 3″ and immense. No one was going to mess with me as long as Ismael was by my side. (It did take us awhile to rent him an orange T-shirt that would fit, though.)

On attempt two, I was up at 4 a.m., we got to the prison at 6 a.m. outfitted in orange, and waited for our group’s turn to enter at 9 a.m. We had three hours to kill outside the prison, but we found a place to get some breakfast and coffee and at 7:30 we headed back to the prison entrance, planning to nap in the car with the air conditioning until it was time.

When Perfect Packing Isn’t

My loot delivery included soap, clothes, toilet paper, additional food, etc. A perfectionist, I packed everything in four large cloth bags, each item doubly packed in strong Ziplocs.

After a few minutes, Ismael decided to ask one of the visiting mothers to look at our stuff to make sure it would pass the inspection.

Shaking her head in dismay, she told us everything was wrong and proceeded to go through the bags, removing anything that would not be accepted. All liquid, paste, or powder had to be any other color but white. Nothing can be in its original factory packaging. All of it had to be dumped or squeezed into a clear plastic bag or containers such as clear Tupperware. Also removed were nail clippers, sheets, T-shirts (they had to be yellow and plain, not designed), gym shorts (they have to be gray, not white), a plastic drinking glass, hair brush, sneakers, and so on.

I gave our new helper some money to go to a nearby store. She bought us some colored toothpaste and laundry detergent and a bunch of clear plastic bags of various sizes. She proceeded to open the tubes, bottles, and boxes, emptying the contents of everything into a plastic bag.

The Bus

About 9 a.m., after completely repacking, two uniforms appeared amidst the sea of orange.

Then, after about a half-hour wait, they herded us in a line towards a “red devil” bus, which quickly filled to over-capacity with all of the orange shirts and their bags. The ride was only about eight minutes long and cost each of the passengers a buck.

Eight minutes later, we arrived at the prison gates. The sea of orange formed four lines in front of four card tables manned by four prison officials and one supervisor. This was the first inspection of our stuff.

Opening every item, they removed whatever else wasn’t allowed. Even with our pre-inspection, we lost still more: the sneakers, plastic cup, and one of the two toothbrushes, and we were told we could only bring in US$20 in cash. (Everything that was confiscated was labelled so we could pick it up on the way out.)
Then we got a pat-down, TSA-style, and were corralled into an outside patio area after a very long, hot walk to get there.

There we were left until all orange T-shirts had completed the first inspection and made the trek to where we were waiting—about an hour.

After about another 15 minutes, the uniformed man reappeared and started to read off the names: “La familia de Poncho Gonzales,” etc. When our prisoner’s name was finally called, we went forward, relinquished our IDs, and began another long walk—still with our heavy bags in tow—to the next stop.

We were led into a barred room with cement tables and seats. This was where the prisoners would come out to meet us. It was now 3 p.m., nine hours after we first arrived. I was spent, but happy to see that the end was nearly in sight.

The prisoners were led in. The joyfully tearful face of William when he saw me made the whole day worthwhile.

He was remarkably intact, both physically and mentally, after six years of incarceration. We talked about his experiences there and our shared experiences from the past.

My hardships of the day were hardly comparable to what William has had to endure, and I felt more than a little ashamed at my internal grumblings along the way. The bus ride back was easy now, I was renewed with a sense of goodness.

After my day visiting William I realized why he and most of the other prisoners never get visitors. The prison system in Panama could not make it any more difficult for visitors. The only people who visit these jailed men are mothers and siblings who love them. Only the motivation of a family’s love could make them go through the difficulties one has to endure to make the all-day visit.

Leighton Garner
Panama Insider