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To Survive Prison in Guatemala, Male Inmates Rely on Their Visitors

SIS professor Anthony Fontes won the Best Article award in the Journal of Latin American Studies for his co-authored article about the Guatemalan prison system’s economic and social norms. In this interview, he answers questions about the article.

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Prisons. There is much written about US prisons, and American prison culture has been the subject of books, movies, and television shows for decades, from Escape from Alcatraz to The Shawshank Redemption and from Oz to Orange is the New Black. But every nation’s prisons are different, and the prison culture reflects the larger culture it inhabits, for better or worse. In his 2019 article “La Visita: Prisons and Survival in Guatemala,” SIS professor Anthony Fontes explores the unique prison culture of Guatemala. This article, published in the Journal of Latin American Studies and co-authored by Kevin O'Neill, professor, University of Toronto, won the publication’s designation of Best Article of 2019, which was just announced on June 30, 2021.

Based on ethnographic research he conducted within the prisons, Fontes’ article provides a macro view of the Guatemalan prison system’s economic and social norms alongside a micro view through the experiences of one prisoner, Carlos, and his romantic and business partner, Sofia. We asked Professor Fontes to answer a few questions about his fascinating and award-winning article, available in full with American University Library access.

This article focuses on the symbiotic relationship among male prisoners, female visitors, and the larger Guatemalan prison system. You and your co-author describe a system in which male prisoners cannot survive without the goods—including basics like food, soap, and even medicine—brought in by their female visitors. The female visitors, who include wives, girlfriends, and sex workers, also bring in equipment and materials that allow prisoners to earn a living in prison as bakers, farmers, and barbers. How does the Guatemalan prison system benefit from these arrangements, and why they are permitted? 
One important reason the Guatemalan prison system “permits” the constant flow of licit and illicit goods into the prison is that it has neither the will nor the wherewithal to provide adequate care for its prisoners. Since the end of its 36-year-long armed conflict, the imprisoned population has risen five-fold, despite less than five percent of crimes being successfully prosecuted in court. At the same time, Guatemala has the lowest income tax rate in the western hemisphere—around 12 percent. Practically every government institution—from public health care to public transportation—is strapped for cash and unable to meet even the minimal needs of the population. Combine this universal dearth with widespread frustration, fear, and rage over out-of-control insecurity, and the outcome is a deep collective sense that imprisoned criminals do not deserve taxpayer money.  
Thus, caring for prisoners has been outsourced to these (mostly female) visitors without whom neither prisoners or the prison system could continue to survive.  
The relationship of Sofia and Carlos is used throughout the article to exemplify how prisoner-visitor relationships develop and why they last. One surprising aspect you discuss is how this system, perhaps counter intuitively, CAN empower SOME women in a way that life in the larger Guatemalan society does not. Would you briefly explain this? 
It is essential first to understand that this “empowerment” emerges against a backdrop of severe gender inequality, expressed in unequal employment access and sky-high rates of household and societal violence targeting women. Poorer women suffer the brunt of this inequality, and this makes male prisons spaces of opportunity. Female prison visitors—like prisoners themselves and a large proportion of prison officials—understand that locking up thousands of men without providing them with the basic means of survival creates a panoply of money-making opportunities for those willing and able to navigate the porous boundary between the prison and the street. An entire economy arises to meet the demands for basic goods (as well as drugs, cellphones, and other illicit products), and many female visitors are able to support themselves and their families by taking part. And the fact that these women have the ability to move in and out of the prison—while their incarcerated romantic/business partners cannot—seems to treble “traditional” gender power dynamics for some prison visitors.  
Some of the women visitors also smuggle in prohibited items such as drugs and cell phones through their body cavities, putting their own liberty at risk. But you describe a women’s prison system that is very different from that of men. How and why is the women’s prison system different? 
Yes, this is where extreme gender inequality becomes spectacularly visible—written into penitentiary policies and into the prison space. In comparison with male prisons, female prisoners’ access to outsiders is extremely circumscribed. Whereas male prisoners can receive multiple visitors a week and can essentially have sex with anyone they wish, in order to have “conjugal visits,” female prisoners must prove to the state that they are legally married to their visitor, and this visitor must come consistently every two weeks for six months before the system allows a conjugal visit. The purported rationale is economic—the Guatemalan state does not want to care for pregnant inmates or their offspring.   
You write that “the prison drug economy is key to the penitentiary system.” How does this economy encourage women like Sofia to smuggle drugs, despite putting themselves at risk of incarceration? 
The potential profits of prison drug-smuggling are far beyond anything that women like Sofia can make in licit markets on the street. Before becoming involved in prison drug-trafficking, Sofia worked in a factory, laboring as much as 18 hours a day making roughly $250 a month and struggled to feed her children and support her family. And like Sofia, many women who become involved in prison drug-trafficking schemes are single mothers with few options. As another woman who worked for years in drug-smuggling before getting caught said, “Smuggling was the only way I could care for my kids and be with them too.” 
The cell phone plays an outsized role in these relationships, both as contraband to be smuggled and as the lifeline that tethers the men and women together. You write about Sofia and Carlos each destroying their phone chips except for the one that links them together. Why was this so economically significant for each of them? 
Cellphones are social and economic lifelines in prison, just like they are on the street. More so. Cellphones make it possible for prisoners to organize networks and maintain relationships on the outside that are absolutely essential to survival.  In the article, we discuss how the economic and romantic threads of Sofia and Carlos’ relationship were utterly entangled from start to finish and that such entanglement can be an essential aspect of prison drug-smuggling. Thus, by officially cutting off their communication with other potential partners, Sofia and Carlos were solidifying their business relationship just as much as they were deepening their romantic commitment to one another.  
What do you want readers to take away from this article? 
I think most people imagine prisons to be spaces that are literally and figuratively isolated from the rest of the world. This is a false image, and a dangerous one, for at least two intertwined reasons. First, prisons and incarceration are in many ways at the very center of how states and societies organize themselves. Prisons embody and concretize the state’s claim to provide law and order, and incarcerated criminals bear the full weight of a society’s will to punish. Second, this means that prison life can show us how social life is organized much more broadly, and stripped of the veils and veneers that make comprehending how and why inequality and suffering are reproduced generation after generation despite our most idealistic aspirations. I only learned this by conducting ethnographic fieldwork behind bars and navigating the porous boundaries separating the inside from the outside of prison. I hope that this article provides access for others to see and understand the meaning and reality of incarceration that took me so long to discover.