LIKE most other law-abiding American citizens, I haven't seen the inside of too many prisons. But about two years ago, I found myself, along with a human rights attorney from Indianapolis, standing at the main gates of Guatemala's largest prison - the Centro de Rehabilitaci'on Pavon; the same prison on the outskirts of Guatemala City where early last week angry inmates overpowered guards and confiscated weapons. At the time of writing, the inmates were holding hundreds of hostages at gunpoint.
After seeing the interior of Pavon and talking with prisoners, I'm not surprised that the inmates rioted to protest their maltreatment. Pavon serves as a powerful reminder that Guatemala is not the glittering democracy that United States government officials often portray.
When I visited in July 1987, the conditions inside Pavon were simply inhumane. The prison had no windows - just blank holes in the walls; virtually no running water - one tap operated a few hours each day; no built-in electricity or heat. The toilets stopped working years ago. Food was served once a day in three shifts because there was no refrigeration; many inmates had set up barbecues to cook in what had once been the bathrooms.
Pavon's main cellblock was designed to accommodate about 1,100 prisoners. When I toured the facility with the warden, over 2,200 inmates were crammed inside. Within the cellblock the inmates roamed freely - the cells didn't have locks.
The grim situation inside Pavon was symptomatic of wider abuses in the Guatemalan judicial system, and of the US government's misunderstanding of what ``democracy'' meant in this Central American nation.
During my visit, dozens of inmates beseeched me to contact their relatives. As they scribbled addresses in my notebook, they explained that, in some cases, they had been in Pavon for years, yet their relatives knew nothing of their whereabouts.