(WOMENSENEWS)--Natania Naylor says she knows the power of faith; it's the only way she made it to hell and back.
For Naylor, a 23-year-old exotic dancer from Rahway, N.J., hell was a women's prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where she spent 13 months on charges of drug trafficking, a crime she denies committing.
Naylor says a newfound faith in God and the bonds she formed with other inmates sustained her in Guayaquil. "I found a few people I could trust and God told me I was going to go home. I just didn't know when."
Despite a constitutional provision that says that prisoners held for more than a year must be freed, Ecuador legalized indefinite pretrial detention of drug offenders in January 2003. Naylor and her then-boyfriend were arrested six months later, in June 2003, after a week the couple spent vacationing in the country.
Naylor's now ex-boyfriend, also a U.S. citizen, took responsibility for drugs that airport officials found in one of Naylor's suitcases. Two years later, he remains in the prison on drug trafficking charges, still waiting to be formally sentenced.
Naylor says she was never officially tried and sentenced in court, despite numerous postponements and fruitless appearances. Once the court failed to provide an interpreter and Naylor speaks no Spanish, so the judge ordered them to return another day. Another time the prosecutor failed to appear. So it went until one day her lawyer informed her that her plea to dismiss charges--made at the very start of her case--was suddenly granted.
An official in the federal prosecutor's office in Guayaquil, which handles all criminal cases, said that Naylor had been detained legally and gone through Ecuador's legal system. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Naylor appealed her case and won her release, though the process took more than a year.
Long Sentencing Delays Common
A U.S. State Department report on human rights practices in Ecuador released last February found that Ecuador's prisoners are likely to wait up to a year before being tried or released and that nearly half had never been formally sentenced.
Joanne Mariner, deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, the New York-based human rights organization, agrees that long captivity, without any sentencing, is common in the region.
"The majority of the Latin American prison population is pretrial detainees. Often inmates are held longer pretrial than their actual sentence would have been."
Pretrial detention is also an issue in the U.S., where the Bush administration can hold suspected terrorists without trial, with the most publicized cases occurring at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Since an ambiguous Supreme Court ruling in June 2004 that detainees are entitled to greater procedural safeguards, the military and detainee lawyers have clashed over what kind of hearings those detainees are entitled to receive.
The Guayaquil prison--its formal name is Litoral--is the nation's largest and is located along Ecuador's western coast, 167 miles (270 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Quito. The male prison holds about 1,100 men and the female prison holds about 325 women and roughly 60 children who have nowhere else to go. The entire complex was designed to hold 600 inmates.
Almost all of the female inmates are at Litoral for drug-related offenses and about 20 percent of them are international, from as close as neighboring Colombia and Peru, to as far as South Africa and Thailand. At any given time, the number of U.S. inmates is less than a dozen.
Bribes Buy Bed, Food, Lawyers
Bribes, Naylor says, will buy a bed in the nicest of the three pavilions at the women's prison, as well as food, clothing and lawyers' fees. Those who cannot pay are forced to live in Pavilion Three, which is dirty and infested with roaches, she says. Meals for inmates there consist mainly of rice and sardines, unless funds and donations are short and there is nothing to eat at all.
An official of the Ecuadorian prison system agreed that bribes are common and corroborated descriptions of Litoral, including the high number of children living with their incarcerated mothers. She said that none of the pavilions should cost money but corrupt officials often take bribes to award different standards of living to prisoners with more money.
"Conditions are deplorable," said Xiomara del Valle, director of public communications for the country's prison system. "We have rats the size of rabbits."
She could not vouch for the food but said that despite the government's promise to allot $11 million to the prison food budget, currently only $1 a day is on hand to feed Ecuador's entire prison population.
Federal prison officials are "very concerned" about the situation, del Valle said. "It's difficult with the obstacles we're facing. Without money we can do absolutely nothing."
Caitlin Dunklee, a junior at New York's Hunter College majoring in urban studies and African American-Latino studies, just returned from her second visit to the prison, after observing the harsh conditions firsthand while studying abroad in Ecuador last spring.
Dunklee visited Litoral for the first time with a lawyer who was representing several of the inmates.
After witnessing dirty drinking water, rampant physical and mental illness, and lack of sexual education and drug rehabilitation programs, she began to devote most of her free time to getting to know the female inmates and trying to advocate on their behalf through appeals to government officials and human rights organizations.
After initially bribing a guard with whisky to gain entrance, she became a familiar face on the prison grounds, with no one blocking her access.
Through donations from people in the United States she also raised $1,000 in cash and $1,500 worth of basic medical and sanitary supplies. She returned to Guayaquil in May with hygienic supplies she purchased with donations, and interviewed the inmates in hopes of rallying groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch around their cause.
During her three-week stay, Dunklee also conducted several HIV/AIDS prevention and sexual education workshops for each cell block.
"Sexual violence is a huge problem in the prison," she says. "All the guards are sleeping with the women, harassing them."
Women from the prison may visit the men's side for conjugal visits lasting up to eight hours and, Dunklee says, no condoms are provided, nor is there any education offered about AIDS or sexually transmitted diseases.
Inmates have relative freedom of movement within the prison. Visitors, lawyers and even various vendors come and go at all hours and, thanks in large part to corruption and bribes, the guards do little to prevent the inmates from demonstrating to draw attention to their conditions, Naylor and Dunklee both say.
Hunger strikes are common, with inmates frequently sewing their lips shut as a symbol of their refusal to eat.
On June 23, two female inmates at Litoral sewed their lips with thick black thread as part of a widely televised national protest aimed at improving prison conditions and sentencing reforms. Their actions were an escalation of a hunger strike launched June 20 by hundreds of inmates throughout the country's prison system.
Another protest technique, self-burial, leaving only the head above ground, is employed by women who call themselves "las Muertas Invidas," or "the Living Dead."
To live in these prisons, they say, is no better than death.
--Theresa Braine contributed to this report.
Robin Hindery works on the international desk of the Associated Press in New York City, and is a regular freelancer for MSNBC.com. Theresa Braine is a correspondent for Women's eNews and other publications based in Mexico City.
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