Heading to Santiago Mariño airport on Margarita Island, I was talking to José Gregorio, a surfer, preacher and taxi driver, who was driving me. As we passed in front of the San Antonio Penitentiary, he said: «I have a friend who spent five years in that place, for drug trafficking, and being a prisoner he became an evangelical. Now he’s free and he’s always giving religious lectures in that place». But of course, that place is Venezuela’s Prison Paradise! How to forget that video report by the New York Times. Immediately I could imagine the prisoners on a holiday, those that seem eternal, swimming and splashing in the pool of the Pran (Kingpin). I asked José Gregorio for his ex-con friend’s phone number.
I met Juan at a bakery on 4 de Mayo Av. He told me about his old addiction to drugs, how he made a living by trading and that he was captured with heroin in his suitcase, without warning, during a shift change of the National Guard. He was sentenced to ten years, but because of his good conduct and supreme surrender to the gospel, it was reduced to five on parole. I told him about my project, my great interest in spending a day with the prisoners in the pool of the Pran, and that the only way to achieve it was with his help.
I wore an ankle skirt and pulled my hair back. I met Juan and his wife at the Penitentiary’s entrance. I tried to be invisible but it did not work; the nerves would not let me. My first impression was like being in the midst of a small contained inferno: the most powerful armed robbers, not a single guard inside, they were all posted outside controlling those who enter and leave the prison. Pool tables, altars, swimming pools, a cockpit, goats, palm trees, weapons, drugs, children and family tents for the Christmas season. Many detainees and family desperate for Juan to bless them. In the meantime, I approached Conejos’s, the great prison Pran, area, and one of the guys from his entourage asked me why I was dressed like that … (and of course, I could not pretend to be something I am not, even less in that world). I was told to pass, Conejo was still sleeping. I could not stand it. Neither the nerves nor the hunger allowed me. For a moment I thought I was going to faint. And that smell, too. I apologized to Juan and his wife. I went to my house.
Juan could not get there. I went in alone. Someone from the entrance escorted me to Conejo’s area again, but they told me to come back later, or the next day.
I went to jail and the taxi driver asked me if I was going to visit someone. I told him that I was trying to get a job and I was going to ask for a permit. He told me that many women go alone, professional, without being «from a bad life», with education; they are going in there lookinh for men, because they are wilder in bed. When I arrived at the prison a guard introduced me to Reyes, one of Conejo’s porters. When I went close to him, he put his gun in his pants. He began to interrogate me, with that grim look: what’s my name, what I do, for whom do I work. When I tell him that I’m not a journalist, I’m a photographer, and I wanted to do an artistic project, he relaxed. He explained that the Pran does not want to know anything about journalists, because the people of the NY Times made it very bad with that report. I told him that my only interest was to show what he did with the pools and I told him about my Guaire project. We walked, we went to look for Conejo. The same portrait appeared: prisoners playing pool and background music. His boss could not attend because he received another visit. Reyes promised me that as his trusted man I could talk to him about my case. He gave me his number so I could call him, and he would give me an answer. He also said that he would most certainly, if he gave me the authorization, be with me at all times, supervising me. At night, I bought a new cell phone line, called Reyes and set the appointment for next Wednesday, only earlier than usual.
My friend Nina came to pick me up to take me to the prison and waited for me at the entrance. I could not even get to the prison. I asked her to take me back home.
I met Juan at the Boat Museum that is located at the entrance to Parque el Agua. He told me about his experience with the previous Pran, during his time in prison. He spoke of some violations to visitors, as vengeance between pavilions. He was already entering a zone of terror. And the panic began.
I called a journalist. I preferred not to go into details about my purpose in jail. He told me all his experience and offered to accompany me, since he was treated very well. We met in Caracas.
I met the journalist in Los Próceres. He took a camera to show me photos that Conejo took in his office/room next to the Minister Iris Varela. The same photo that has been shared in social networks: both of them hugging and sitting on the Pran’s bed.
I bought a ticket back and forth the same day for the journalist. We arrived at noon to jail. We had to wait about three hours inside. An inmate gave us a guided tour throughout the village. Conejo’s logo is the same one that Art Paul designed for the magazine Playboy and is on every wall of the pavilion. I even had the honor of meeting his personal chef. The journalist always presented himself as a journalist for Últimas Noticias, and friend of the minister. Some armed men passed by us, and one of them threatened me with a defiant look. After a while a guard came in, he demanded alarmingly that we leave before something bad happened to us. While leaving, we saw a lieutenant accompanied by about ten guards. They complained and told me that if I had to ask for a permit it should be directly with the prison director and not to an inmate. That I should not come back anymore. They did not want anything with journalists.
After spending hours thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that it would be best to explain or clarify that the project would not be against them, so I went to jail with the sole intention of meeting with the director. I waited for about two hours at the entrance. When I arrived I introduced myself. I told him my great interest in showing what the Pran had done there. I assumed him that going with a journalist had been a great mistake, but that his press release was not negative anyway. I insisted he tried to understand that I only wanted to take him because of my lack of experience with the prison issue, that my work would not affect them in the least, because I had always been interested in highlighting human quality. He confessed to me that the day I was in the prison with the journalist, it was the Pran himself who called him and asked him to take us out. He finally understood my proposal and gave me the Conejo’’s cell number. He asked me not to tell him that he had given it to me. We agreed to call him in the late afternoon. He gave me green light to call the Conejo and I did. Finally I spoke directly with the Pran and asked him to understand that I was not really a journalist and that my work was not going to affect him at all. He replied, «Aha, and when are you coming to take the photos?» I asked if I could enter with my camera and he told me to ask the director. I called the director again and told me to talk to Conejo. He explained to me that some cameras were sneaked into prisons, that maybe I could managed and work with one of those.
New day in the penitentiary. I looked for Reyes. He told me the same thing as the previous time: Conejo was busy receiving a visit. Suddenly, another one of his lackeys gave me a signal and said, «Come on, Brother, he will receive you». We began to walk and suddenly I had many armed men walking behind me. I panicked. I asked what was happening and they began to laugh: «Ah, you’re afraid». I ran away. At the entrance, the guards told me: «What are you doing here? We told you not to come back, go!» I went out and at the main entrance go the street and I started to cry out of pure frustration. The following days I was reflecting on the importance of the photographic quality of this project. Whether it was necessary or not. I concluded that at this point, after so much power war in which I was involved, if I could get Conejo or one of his men to end up taking a picture of me: I would have won my battle. An invasive tourist seen through her eyes.
I phoned Conejo and, with his farm foreman tone, told me: «I was waiting for you the other day in my office, but you ran out. Come Saturday at nine in the morning and I’ll pick you up at the door myself. »
The stars wanted to frighten me. Reyes asked me to wait a little longer. Conejo never came out. Back to the house again; defeated.
Strangely, Reyes gave me information he had never given me: «Conejo also listens to a second voice.» His right hand also makes decisions. «His name is Rafael,» and he pointed it out to me. I waited for him to finish talking on his BlackBerry. I introduced myself. He told me that he had seen me several times, even when I was running. I told him the same thing as the director. He asked me «and what do we gain from all this? Obviously, you’re the one who wins. » I told him that of course they had something to gain: «they would look good to everyone outside that place, especially after the NY Times news». I told him what I was going to do with a very discreet computer and disposable cameras. He replied: «If we approve, we give the order to the director and they will let you get in with the cameras.» We agreed that the next Saturday I would look for him again and we would sit down to show him images of my work. And then he recognized: «we see that you are very insistent, you have not stopped trying».
Today I went to visit Rafael. I took two photos of Guaire and a photo I took of a ranch with a swimming pool, seen from underground cable. He asked me: «Why do you insist so much on that pool, it’s nothing new, and everyone knows they exist, why does it matter? I’ll take a picture with my cell phone and I send it to you.» I was sitting next to him during all of these, and on the other side sat a prisoner who caressed the head of his puppy with one hand while with the other held a gun. The scene was filled with children flitting around in their swimsuits and people selling snacks. The place was increasingly taking on a club atmosphere. And I, progressively, felt more relaxed inside that scenario. Then I said, «Well, after so much insisting, I want to take my photos and I swear to you that they will never know about me again.» To which he replied: «If you do something bad, we remember the faces».
A few days later I called Conejo. I asked if they would give me a camera if I took my own chip there. He said, «Of course they would.»
«Today is the day, today is the day, today is the day». I’ve been repeating that since yesterday. «Nothing bad will happen, nothing bad will happen.» I got to jail, there was a huge queue at the entrance. Many children. That gave me confidence. There was a change of guard. They had another system to let people in, apparently, a more complicated one. I had to wait like two hours. I was checked in. I took my clothes off. The girl in charge of security asked me what was in my pocket. I took out the memory card. She asked me to leave it at the entrance, but she did not follow me, so I went through with my card. As I entered, I only looked at Reyes, who was sitting on the usual bench. I said, «Reyes, today is the day». And he replied, «No, chama, Rafael just went into the room with his girlfriend and the Brother received a visit.» «Come on, Reyes, I’m not leaving here until I take my photos. I can not go on with this». He called Conejo from his cell phone: «Brother, here’s the reporter, the one from the photos», and then, addressing me: «You’re going to have to wait for a long time.» «Why did you tell him I’m a journalist, if you know better?» I asked him «In here we all know from day one that you are a journalist, but we have it clear that you do not want to do anything bad, they are only photos in the pool area. We still do not quite understand why you want to do that, but it’s okay, we know it’s not bad at all. » I thought then: «At this point what does it matters, if I am still the same tourist, the same who walked the Guaire, the Humboldt and among so much muddy water has reached the pool of the Pran.» We walked and sat on a little table that was in the garden. Reyes told me his story since he entered that place. He had to pay 5,000 Bs to make his room and, according to him, it’s in this country’s best prison. Suddenly he paused and said, «Brother left his room.» «Reyes, please, get me in. Take me where you are. Introduce me»,I said. Reyes laughed. He pointed at him. It was like seeing Buddha (twice as fat as seen in the photos). He was approached by a salesman / innkeeper with oysters. As he spoke, he ate them. He told the same thing that everyone had: «You can only take pictures in the pool, the NYTimes fucked us a lot». He insisted that I could not take photos of weapons or drugs. I asked him if I could have protection since I was going to take off my clothes, because I would also in a bathing suit in one of the photos. «Of course, no problem.» He sent for an inmate, who was the one who made his living out there as a photographer on weekends. I thought, «Wow, a colleague!» He pulled out two pocket cameras. My chip was in one. Conejo gave him the command not to ever leave me. He had to supervise my photos. Conejo also ordered Reyes to check up on me from time to time. We entered. AT LAST! I entered the dream bubble. Children enraptured with happiness around the pool of the weekend club. One or another prisoner floating in the water. Just like I imagined it when I passed by December in the taxi. I could not believe it. Everything was in my favor.
I finally got my clothes off. I sat on the edge of the pool with a parrot (the pet of a prisoner). Nobody told me anything. Everyone respected me. Only one prisoner passed me by and said, «You are a queen.»
Some names in this story were changed.
The Penitentiary series was exhibited in El Anexo in 2013.
If you want to see the complete series of photos and the complete work of the artist click here.