By Michael Dorausch, D.C.
La Joya, “the jewel” in english, is a primary maximum security facility in the country of Panama. It houses prisoners accused of the most serious crimes. La Joya has a planned capacity of 1,250, yet it currently houses over 2,200 inmates. It is located about 50 miles outside of Panama city.
On the morning of March 7th, 2002, four chiropractors (part of the March 2002 CREW Chiropractic Mission to Panama), including myself, were informed that we would be providing chiropractic care inside the jewel of Panama.
We traveled to the prison by bus in what seemed to be a very long ride. First we had to get off the main road and go to the north on a dirt road which brought us to our first checkpoint. Here, prison guards with shotguns and rifles stop us to gather more information. There were eight of us in the group, including myself and three other chiropractors, Drs. Beilizaire, Martin, and LaMarca. After a brief wait we traveled about another 200 yards and we were at our second checkpoint. This checkpoint had many more guards and appeared to be the main office facility for prison guards and workers. At this checkpoint they let us through a gate and we head further north towards the La Joya main prison entrance. There are guards in towers with rifles and they are dressed in full military assault type clothing.
I stepped off the bus and there was a fire burning to the north. It appeared to be garbage and large amounts of smoke were blowing across the prison yard. I could see the buildings in which the prisoners lived. It did not look anything like a prison you would see in a U.S. made movie, it looked much more like a concentration camp or a prisoner of war camp type of setting. We were standing at the middle of the gates and there was about 500 yards of chain-link fence to the north and to the south. The fences appeared to be about 18 feet high with another 3 feet of razor wire on top.
A big rectangle, imagine a big fenced in rectangle, and it’s all dirt and dead grass. You go in about 20 feet and there is a second fence that is the same height also with razor wire on top. In between the fences is a guard riding a horse and he’s carrying a very large gun. In addition to that, on each corner are guard towers with riflemen in them. The smoke is blowing to the south from the garbage that is burning which makes for a very ominous look and feel as it billows across the compound. This thick smoke is coming past us and across the prison yard, and I am looking out at the prison yard and it’s all smoky. Everyone is quiet.
We were not allowed to approach the entrance as guards were processing about 20 new inmates that may have been going to prison for the first time. I’m watching these twenty men standing thirty feet from me that for the first time in their lives may be going to a maximum security prison. They are being let into this prison one by one. Basically, in this rectangle you have the main directors building right in the center of the prison yard, and then you have some buildings to the left and some buildings to the right, each of which houses prisoners.
There’s a concrete path about the width of a sidewalk that goes from the main entrance up to the main building. The guards are processing each prisoner in a small building at the main entrance while we wait. Each prisoner has his hands tied behind his back with heavy nylon ties and they are sent one by one along the walk up to the main building. One prisoner is sent to walk and when he has reached far enough along on the walk (which is about 100 yards) the next prisoner is sent up on the walk. I watch these guys as the smoke is passing between us and I’m wondering, what are these 18, 19 and 20-year-olds going up the walk thinking? What’s in their heads?
They were sent one at a time, one guy would go, and then another would be sent. There was a guard on the north side with a large gun sitting on a horse. He was watching as each prisoner walked up the walk to the main building. It was at this time that the reality of the situation began to really become much more clear to me. I must admit, I have always had a fear of prisons. I had just never given it much thought up until this moment.
Let’s face it, here I am a blond haired blue eyed male and I am going to get nose to nose with these people. These guys are going in and they may never be coming out. I couldn’t fathom being in their position. The guards complete processing the new prisoners and it is our turn to walk up the walk. I begin walking up the path, this concrete walk up to the main building. At this time, all newly processed prisoners have already entered the main building. As I’m walking up the path I thought at first I heard birds but it was whistling from the inmates. The whistling got louder and there were words shouted which I didn’t understand since I don’t speak much Spanish. As it turns out, they were catcalling and it was intended to dehumanize us, to strike fear in our hearts. They did not know who we were, all they knew was that fresh meat was entering the prison compound.
Imagine more than 2000 prisoners calling out, whistling, like you would see in a movie when a new inmate enters the prison compound. I hadn’t noticed it earlier since I was on the bus when the first prisoners were being processed but now I was walking the walk and had a closer understanding of the experience. It’s coming from both sides, and we are each walking, each member of our group and no one is talking to one another. Everyone is very quiet and is just walking towards the main building. I found out later that we were all having similar thoughts, this was not like walking into a prison in the U.S. The reality was that we were in a foreign country, in a faraway place, and anything could happen, at any time.
It was not like they were going to bring prisoners to us at the gate, so we had to enter the compound in order to adjust. At this point I’m standing in the directors building and we’re only about 10 to 15 feet from the new prisoners that had just been processed. They are sitting on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs. My first thought was that I had to use a bathroom because the last thing I wanted to do was wet my pants if someone had startled me.
Apparently, all of us had to go. We all went to use the bathroom and when we come back the prison guards asked if one of us would like to stay and adjust the guards and prison workers inside the main building. I was really ready to volunteer but there was a female in our group and we all probably felt it would be best if she stayed. So now there is myself, Drs. Gene and Marco, heading off to the first prison block on the southwest side. There were about four guards with us, some of them carrying very large gun’s and the others carrying a club about the size of baseball bat. However, these clubs looked like a straight solid black baseball bat with a small leather string at one end where the handle was. They appeared to be well worn.
So we walk through the sand, dirt, and dead grass and the wind is blowing up debris as we head to the first cell building. There are all these series of high fences with razor wire that we have to pass through before we get to the first spot. We get to the first cell building which really looks just like a large cinder block rectangle building with a tin roof. There are bars on the windows about eight feet up the walls and they are full of faces trying to see what we are preparing to do. There is only one door to the building that I can see.
The guards bring us four folding chairs and we set them up just outside the buildings front wall. I have two chairs and I’m standing less than two feet from about 20 prisoners watching me through the bars. I don’t know how many prisoners where in this first building which could not have been more than 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. Many slept on the floor and hammocks were strung in every available space, some all the way up to the ceiling from what I could see. Most of the prisoners did not have beds, they had cardboard or foam for the floor, or the hammocks.
We started there and these guys came out in groups of 4 in front of the guards and sat in our chairs. It was not like I had anticipated, it was not like something you might see on 60 minutes when an inmate gets interviewed for TV. These guys did not look like what I had expected. They were mostly about 135 pounds to 185 pounds, five feet to six feet tall and wearing a pair of flip-flops, shorts or underwear, and a T-shirt (which I later found each inmate was told to put on before they came outside). In this first group of prisoners, I noticed they were mostly covered with tattoos. I was told later many were gang tattoos. I was trying to stay real focused and centered as I adjusted each of these individuals. “I’m going to give them everything I’ve got with each and every adjustment” I told myself. “We are all one, we are all one, we are all one,” I thought.
I’m adjusting, adjusting, adjusting, adjusting and they begin calling out from the cell bars. This is one time in Panama that I felt fortunate I did not know what they were talking about. I kept telling myself that they were saying that they love us, that they were thankful for us being there, but I sensed that some of them were saying something different, especially by the looks I could see on the guards faces. The guards were very calm as they watched everything we did.
We continued to adjust. We were in the prison for about 2 1/2 hours and we adjusted at six different locations within the prison. We walked to the second cell building and there was a hand-painted sign on the door that said “La Cosita” which translates to “the small thing” in English. Now this building was even smaller than the first we were at and again, prisoners were brought out four at a time to be adjusted. As I looked on the ground I noticed there were broken razors, razor blades, and trash strewn around. After we finished adjusting at that location I was informed that this was where former police officers were serving time for crimes committed while on duty. Again, most prisoners that I adjusted had no more than a pair of shorts or underwear on, a T-shirt, and their sandals or sometimes shoes without laces.
When we arrived at the fourth building we had a few experiences to remind us of the reality of where we were. As each prisoner comes out they are hand checked by guards. Each of us are adjusting and we hear some of the guards talking and then one of the guards presents a 12 inch homemade Bowie knife. It was made out of steel and looked to be a bit rusty at the handle but it appeared to be very sharp and very large. I assume it was found in the building or on one of the inmates. The guard showed it to the other guards and did not try to hide it in front of any of us which at first I thought was a little odd but I think the guards wanted everyone to know that they would find weapons if the inmates had them. While we were adjusting, two more homemade weapons were found both looking very similar to the first. Now imagine for moment, you’re in a foreign country, in a prison, making hands on contact with each person put before you and the nearest guard is about 10 feet away holding either a gun or a club. Yet you are only inches from the ones you touch during nearly all of the 2 1/2 hours you’re in this prison setting, completely vulnerable.
This really brought home the seriousness of where we were at and what we were doing there. Of the 2285 prisoners, we were told that we adjusted more than 1100 that afternoon. Not everybody came out to be adjusted in the time that we were there and we were to come back on another day.
When we are all done we headed back to the main central building where now we were going to take that 100 yard walk back out to the prison gates. I felt free. I don’t mean free like I was glad not to be a prisoner (although I was glad for what I have), I felt free like I had given everything I possibly could and while I was there to serve them I was receiving a gift greater than I could possibly describe. I felt as though I had been preparing for this day for some time.
Many thoughts came my way during that hundred yard walk and I was gone. I was emotionally, physically, and spiritually in another place. I walked next to Lina Ocon as a warm wind blew and the western sun shined on our faces. The smoke from the earlier fire had cleared but the men were still yelling, only it was much louder than when we first entered the prison. I could hear it from both sides and I just walked not saying a word to Lina. Close to the end of our walk, I looked at her face and she was smiling. She looked at me and said, “do you know what they’re saying?” I responded: no, what are they saying? She said, “they’re saying God bless you, thank you, God bless you.”
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