Monday, May 28, 2012

How I went to jail. Twice!

One of the less delightful aspects of my job is to visit American citizens who for one reason or another happened to land in the local jails. To be honest, the American Embassy provides mostly moral support and lends a sympathetic ear (well, in this case, MY ear) to the raves and rants of our fellow citizens behind the less than hospitable bars of the host country. We generously give them a list of lawyers in case they don’t already have one such expensive accessory and subsequently monitor first the trial to ensure fairness and then their condition in the prison to make sure they are treated reasonably well. For folks who have been in reason for some time, we are supposed to visit at least a month. For jail freshmen, we need to visit immediately.
And so it happened that on a bright, stuffy, painfully hot and muggy day I was supposed to visit a long-term prisoner fella’ of ours who is behind bars for murder. It also just so happened that we got news that a brand new, wide-eyed American had also found his way into prison the previous week. Not one to waste governmental money for extra gas, I decided to combine both trips and spend some quality time at Dhaka Central Jail. It was going to be my first trip and my palms were getting sweaty from the excitement. Or from the excessive muggy heat, who knows. There was, however, a large fly in the ointment, as an old economics teacher of mine, one infamous Padma Desai, would say. The large hairy fly was the fact that we needed to get permission from the Bangladesh government to visit our new jailbird. The road to permission is laden with traps like dip notes, notes verbale, gazillion phone calls to ministers, vice-ministers, petit administrators, prison chiefs, inspectors, a few second and third secretaries, several angry emails and 2 non-working fax machines. To make a long story short, a week into the process, we seemed deceptively close to getting the coveted permission (you’d think we wanted to shoot vodka with the head imam instead of going on a prison visit) but not really getting it.
Since we had to visit our prisoner N1 anyway (we have a long standing permission to visit him), we decided to go and hope that somehow while we were on our way, the permission for prisoner N2 will magically materialize. It took us only 1 hour to get there – the Central Jail is in old Dhaka, a place that is rather challenging to navigate given that its streets were designed to let through a few cows and a goat, not a Chevy SUV, 5678 rickshaws and 357,834 pedestrians in addition to the goats. We arrived at prison just as a bunch of particularly grisly prisoners, shackled in contraptions circa 1910 were climbing morosely into a large prehistoric blue bus. I could not stop conjuring scenes from “Oh Brother, Where Art Though?” Even though I had tried to dress conservatively for the day (I wore pants, a first for me in this climate), I was an instant hit in the square in front of the jail. Everyone in the vicinity either glued themselves to the windows or stopped in the street and openly stared. Inasmuch as I wanted to appear strong yet graceful, my appearance was definitely marred by the fact that I was carrying a massive (and heavy) duffel bag filled with books and newspapers for Mr. Prisoner, clutching a very uncomfortable folder under my left arm and my purse under the other (I was paranoid someone will snatch it from me). In addition, my blond curly hair was rapidly turning into a massive cloud of frizzy mess on top of my head, effectively making me look like a frantic sweaty administrative sheep. I marched on, determined, towards the prison gate which for some odd reason was only 5 ft tall and necessitated me to bend over and go inside in an even less graceful manner. I am afraid I made a rather comical entrance and did not impress the ail Superintendent one bit. Which was bad because I badly needed to impress him - as you can imagine, the permission to see our prisoner had not arrived and he flatly refused to let us see him.
Instead, we waited for about 2 hours to meet with our other prisoner. We were seated politely in an outdoors area, in front of a massive fan, on playfully tasteful wicker furniture and served prison-baked cookies. Needless to say, I was also intensely stared at for every minute of those 2 hours by every policemen, detective, passing prisoner and random loiterer inside (there seemed to be so many). In the meantime, the jail superintendent came by to release some prisoners – he’d call their names, look into a ginormous red book, ask them secure self-identifying questions like “what’s your mother’s name,” joke about their crime and then let them go. We eventually saw our prisoner, gave him a bunch of books, chatted with him for 20 mins and left. No amount of pleading and cajoling would make him allow us the other guy.
Of course, we finally got the permission 10 mins after we came back to the Embassy that same day. Which meant that on the following day my senior local staff and I found ourselves once again prison bound. We were well on our way when the driver took a wrong turn. Suddenly we were in an impossible myriad of streets, no names or any other distinctive signs, surrounded by rickshaws and a sea of people peddling (or buying) any imaginable item in the world. None of the above were moved, literally, by the presence of the large white Embassy SUV. In fact, it seemed sometimes that rickshaws climbed on top of the massive armored vehicle. We went places where no car has ever been, I am sure. Even the goats were amused by our presence there.
Two and half hours later, we spilled out of the banged up vehicle in front of prison to the utter delight of the yesterday’s gawkers. Once back inside, the superintendent poured over the permission to see our guy and seemingly enthusiastically ordered someone to get the guy prepped. Then he set out to his usual business of releasing skinny frightened criminals, one of which said that he was either 12, 13 or 14 years old?! To add to the performance, two neat and serene detectives in killer ties joined the party – I think they were supposed to watch the released and pick some of them for testifying. Unless I was one of the potential witnesses, I don’t think they saw much since both of them bore unblinking eyes into me while I pretended to understand everything that was going on. About 1.5 hrs later, a policeman came to double check on the name of the AMCIT prisoner – we confirmed, He disappeared. Another one appeared from nowhere with a tray of cookies placed gracefully on plates engraved in cursive with “Dhaka Central Jail” on them. Someone out there actually thought about hosting guests in prison and ordered them plates. Hospitality is the word! At that precise moment, the policeman came back and told us, “Um, the American was released 2 days ago…” and then left hurriedly, almost skipping on his way out, possibly incinerated by the look I gave him. I made sure I glared sufficiently at everyone around me, got up with the look of a very hurt pride (I did feel rather stupid at that moment since we had raised such hell in order to see that guy) and walked away, slicking my high heels on the stone prison floor as hard as I could. Positively good times.
In other news, the Diplomat just came from a memorable weekend away in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he went off to feel manly with another 5 of his Embassy buddies. They all came back in one piece and their wildest stories include dancing with each other until 3 am, riding mopeds on the highway to sightsee, playing indecent amounts of tennis and drinking duty-free vodka in the early afternoon. Wild times.

1 comment:

  1. A good account including the anti climax re second prisoner. Finally you will turn out to be the most exposed american to the oriental environment including its detention centres.