La Joya, The Jewel: Volunteer work in the Maximum Security Prison in Panama

I have been asked many times about my background, experiences and why I do so much voluntary work. For a period of 10 or more years I traveled to other countries on health care missions where we brought health education, examinations and treatment to those unable to afford care. The following was written by a friend of mine, Dr. Mike, after one such mission trip to Panama in 2002. He had this published in his local newspaper because he felt it necessary that all of us docs received some recognition for the work we did and the money we spend (out of our own pockets). I personally feel that this recognition was not necessary as we all did these missions out of love and caring. Of course we received many thank you’s, but again this was never necessary. We all just wanted to make a difference.

The Jewel of Panama – Four doctor’s experiences in one of the world’s most feared prisons

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 and heinous crimes. La Joya had 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 Doctors (Part of the March 2002 Mission to Panama), including myself, were informed that we would be providing 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 stopped us to gather more information. There were four of us in the group, including myself and three other doctors, Dr. Marcos Beilizaire, Dr. Gene Martin, and Dr. Bridgett 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 were guards in towers with rifles and they were dressed in full military assault type clothing.

We 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.

Imagine a big fenced in rectangle, and it was all dirt and dead grass. You than would proceed in about 20 feet and there was a second fence that was the same height also with razor wire on top. In between the fences was a guard riding a horse and carrying a very large gun. In addition to that, on each corner were guard towers with riflemen in them. The smoke was blowing to the south from the burning garbage which made for a very ominous look and feel as it billowed across the compound. This thick smoke was coming past us and across the prison yard, and as I looked out at the smoky prison yard  everyone seemed dreary and very quiet.

We were not allowed to approach the entrance as guards were processing about 20 new inmates that may have been sentenced to La Joya prison for the first time. I watched these twenty men standing thirty feet from me, who were about to enter a maximum security prison for the first time in their young lives. They were being let into this prison one by one. Basically, in this rectangle you had the main director’s building right in the center of the prison yard, and then you had some buildings to the left and some buildings to the right, each of which housed prisoners.

There was a concrete path about the width of a sidewalk which went from the main entrance up to the main building. The guards were processing each prisoner in a small building at the main entrance while we waited. Each prisoner had his hands tied behind his back with heavy nylon ties and they are sent one by one along the walkway up to the main building. One prisoner was sent up the walkway and when he had reached far enough along on the walk (which was about 100 yards) the next prisoner was sent up. I watched these guys as the smoke  passed between us and I wondered, what were these 18, 19 and 20-year-olds thinking? What’s was going through 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 walkway 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 completed the processing of the new prisoners and it was our turn to walk up the walkway. I begin  up the path, this concrete walk to the main building. At this time, all newly processed prisoners had already entered the main building. As I walked up the path I thought at first that I heard birds but it was really 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 turned out, they were catcalling and it was intended to dehumanize us and  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 entered 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 along the same walkway and was able to have a closer understanding of the experience. It was coming from both sides, and we were each walking, each member of our group, and no one said a word to each other. I believe that we were all overwhelmed by the situation, I sure was!. Everyone was very quiet and is just walking towards the main building alone with their thoughts. 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 examine them. At this point I was standing in the directors building and we were only about 10 to 15 feet from the new prisoners that had just been processed. They were 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 something 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 examine the guards and prison workers inside the main building. I was really ready to volunteer but there was a woman in our group (Bridget LaMarca) and we all probably felt it would be best if she stayed. So this left myself, Dr. Gene and Dr. Marco, heading off to the first prison block on the southwest side of the complex. There were about four guards with us, some of them carrying very large gun’s and  others carrying  clubs 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.

We walked through the sand, dirt, and dead grass, amidst millions of sand fleas while the wind blew up debris. We headed towards first cell building. There were all these series of high fences with razor wire that we have to pass through before we arrived at the first spot. We got to the first cell building which really looked just like a large cinder block rectangular  building with a tin roof. There were bars on the windows which were  eight feet up the walls and were full of faces trying to see what we are preparing to do. There was only one door to the building that I could see.

The guards brought us four folding chairs and we set them up just outside the buildings front wall. I had two chairs and I was standing less than two feet from about 20 prisoners watching me through the bars. I don’t know how many prisoners where within this first building which could not have been larger than 200 feet long by 100 feet wide. Many prisoners, we learned, slept on the floor and the lucky ones had hammocks which were strung up 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  and these guys came out in groups of 4 in front of the guards and sat in our chairs. It was nothing 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 that they were mostly covered with tattoos. I was told later most were gang tattoos. I was trying to stay real focused and centered as I examined each of these individuals. “I’m going to give them everything I’ve got ” I told myself. “We are all one, we are all one, we are all one,” I thinking!

I kept examining prisoner after prisoner after prisoner and they begin while the ones inside the building kept calling out obscene things to us through the cell bars.. 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 loved us, that they were thankful for us being there, but I sensed that some of them were saying something very different, especially by the looks I could see on the guard’s faces. The guards were very calm as they watched everything we did.

We continued to examine. We were in the prison for about 12 1/2 hours and we performed examinations 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 examined. As I looked on the ground I noticed there were broken razors, razor blades, and trash strewn around. After we finished examining 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 examined 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 which reminded us of the reality of where we were. As each prisoner came out they were hand checked by guards. Each of us were examining and we heard some of the guards talking and then one of the guards presented a 12 inch homemade Bowie knife to us. 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 assumed that 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 continued to perform examinations, 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 12 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 examined more than 600 that day. Not everybody came out to be examined in the time that we were there and we were asked to come back on another day. We were exhausted. Both physically and mentally, however, we were no longer fearful. It hit each of us, that beneath the interior, people are people.

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 a sense of freedom but also a sense of sadness.  I felt free like I had given everything I possibly could while I was there to serve these prisoners and I  received a gift greater than I could possibly imagine. 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 (who had set up this mission to Panama) as a warm wind blew and the western setting 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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