Over the years I’ve collected quite a number of gaijin/gringo prison memoirs. They all follow roughly the same narrative toward the point where the gaijin/gringo (let’s call him GG) is able to sit in a relatively safe western location and reflect on the foolishness that led him astray, as well as the horror of his terrible exile. Basically GG needs money, so he buys drugs in an exotic third world location and gets busted at the airport by cops who find him carrying a shitload of powder.
GG then gets interrogated by a nasty swarthy type (usually sweaty) which prompts some tortuous self-recrimination on the long journey to remand at a prison which is not good but not terrible. GG then goes to court, holding onto a half-assed hope of rescue (and/or absolution through bribery), before being found guilty and sentenced to more years than reasonable in an awful prison, characterised by brutality and systematic degradation, in a remote and unsurveilled location.
(Asia, and Thailand in particular, get a lot of airtime in prison memoirs. South America too, for the obvious reason that these are where the drugs are sourced and supplied. I would suppose that there is an untapped market in African GG prison memoirs, maybe Russian prison memoirs too, but I’ve not seen any. Maybe the GG doesn’t survive there.)
The next phase is settling in: mapping space, finding allies, and getting money from family back home (because third world prisons are user pays). Once they’ve got a bed and cache of food there is the political economy. GG maps out the bossmen, the gangs, the straight guards, the bent guards, the shemales, the HIV positive, the other gaijin/gringos, the scroungers, the dealers and the salesmen. They are all regarded in much the same way that an ecologist might regard small mammals or arthropods.
Having covered the physical and human territory of the prison GG then turns his attention to getting out. There is the usual consideration of escape plans and escape frauds, which come to naught. There is the assessment of the local diplomatic service, their inefficiencies and lack of care for inmates. Then comes the waiting it out phase, this gets strung out, looped through the rise and fall of hopes. Usually this period involves drugs: manufacturing, buying, consuming, selling and protecting drugs. This takes up many years, understandably.
Then the story starts to fade, usually because actually going through the legal, bureaucratic and diplomatic procedures of being released from prison in a third world country isn’t straightforward. Telling that story isn’t as interesting as gang wars or cocaine smuggled up someone’s arse, so it gets a bit slower, going through the motions until the glorious moment that GG is released and put on a plane home.
There’s usually a little coda at this point about how GG is now a very responsible citizen, has managed to pay back the money borrowed in prison and rebuild his relationship with his Mum, Dad and maybe his kids (though almost always never the wife or girlfriend, for whom being GG busted was the last straw). This gesture toward redemption has an industrial feel, as if the story couldn’t be sold unless GG was genuinely remorseful and repentant.
One of the oldest and probably the best of the GG prison memoirs is Warren Fellows’ The Damage Done (though aficionados might point to Billy Hayes’ Midnight Express, which is worthy but somewhat overdone in my view, the Alan Parker/Oliver Stone movie doubly so). I can’t help but think the quality of The Damage Done is due the input of Jack Marx who ghosted the book. Marx and Fellows pitch The Damage Done at a simple acknowledgement of the human life spent in prison. There is no angle at justice or absolution. The years in prison are not a rhetorical flourish toward legal vengeance but four thousand three hundred nights of loneliness and fear. The Damage Done never lets the weight of these nights fall unregarded.
This is a complete contrast to Andy Botts’ Nightmare in Bangkok. Botts was a conman and reading Nightmare in Bangkok one is tempted to think that he still is, given that nothing in the book comes close to ethical reflection. He’s cocky and cocksure and his comeuppance is never really brought into view, because really this is not a prison narrative, it’s a junkie narrative. In this way prison is just another place to score and there is no comeuppance, merely some interruptions to supply, and from that Botts’ account is weightless. It is difficult to have much admiration or affection for Botts.
Supply is no problem for Thomas McFadden & Rusty Young. Over the past ten years or so I have seen their book Marching Powder in just about every bookstore I’ve entered, on all the continents I’ve visited. It’s still to be found in the remainder bookstalls that lay out tables of five and eight dollar books in the mall. Part of me wonders why it hasn’t sold: it’s well written, it’s got all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a prison memoir, it’s got a genuinely charismatic nutter (McFadden) at the centre of its story, and with Rusty Young an interesting and as yet untold backstory. It must have been over printed, that’s what I figure. Marching Powder goes the whole hog for prison anthropology, getting down among the weeds of how the prison works and how prisoners cope with the working. It has, as the title suggests, a long segue into drug life and might be said to wallow in that a little bit. Despite this Marching Powder is a fun book to read, it is curious and thoughtful and never turns the prisoners into Lilliputians or Bolivia itself into Lilliput. This consideration is not found in all the GG prison memoirs.
For instance David McMillan’s Escape is all about David McMillan. In his narrative the Thais are all wooden totems of evil, prison guards are sadists to a man, drugs are simply capitalism’s best product, and escape from detention simply an outcome of natural justice. He can be quite tedious because despite all that happens to him none of it matters because it’s all about him. There is a larger version of this narrative in David Gregory Roberts’ Shantaram, in which all of India and the subcontinent are relegated from supporting cast to extras in the grand narrative of Roberts finding himself while being a prison escapee, a criminal, a drug addict, a guerrilla, an action hero, an intellectual spiritualist, a pretend doctor, and many, many other roles. None of which matter because throughout the 900 odd pages of drivel the only thing that matters is the central character’s quest for selfhood. Yeah, wow (sags in chair).
Throughout In the Shadow of Papillon: Seven Years of Hell in Venezuela’s Prison System Frank Kane manages the failed romance of selfhood better than others. For Kane, Venezuela’s prisons are simply a hell and as such there is nothing redemptive about the time served. Kane’s story is a brutal rejection of feeling, once inside (along with his girlfriend) it’s all he can do survive and to worry about how it feels is to simply expose oneself to unwarranted risk. The story is clear and well told but who Frank Kane is, what he feels and how that changes him –he doesn’t want to tell that story.
Oddly enough about a decade later an Irishman, Paul Keany, found himself in many of the same Venezuelan prisons telling the same story in The Cocaine Diaries but puts feeling in front and centre. In many ways it is not as well written as In the Shadow of Papillon but Keany doesn’t hide himself or the abjection he feels in himself. His humour mitigates some of his tendency to generalise about his fellow prisoners and his imprisoners, a tendency which is not flattering. But this is really a signal of the openness with which Keany writes, an openness that means his fallibilities are right out there, stonkingly obvious. This is not a book about how tough the author was, nor a book about toughness. It’s a book about being weak and flawed and dealing with that.
What is striking about all these gaijin/gringos is how lacking in curiosity they are. Contrast this with Lockdown by Dr Drauzio Varella, a doctor’s account of life in a Brazilian prison. Varella is concerned, interested, fascinated, compelled and intrigued by prison life and prisoners. He asks questions, he wonders aloud, he hypothesizes, he seeks out the backstory and the sidestory. He is interested in the context, in the visible and invisible topographies of choice. The thing he is really not interested in is the exoticism of his surroundings. He sees no great disparity between the world inside and the world outside, whereas for all our gaijin/gringos the disparity is the heart of the matter: it is what drew them to Thailand or Bolivia or Columbia in the first place, and what they seek to leave from the airport bust to the release procedure. Varella is just as much a prison alien as the gaijin/gringos, due to class rather than the passport he holds, and sees victims wherever he looks. The gaijin/gringos only see their own victimhood, their position as normal amongst the abnormal. This makes the world appear very small.