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.
I asked a group of inmates if any of them had never been charged with a crime. Dozens of hands shot up. How many had never been to trial or seen a lawyer? Again, dozens of hands pointed skyward. Several inmates told me they had been captive in Pavon for over a year, but had yet to be charged with a crime or brought before a local judge. Others had been in prison years longer than mandated by their sentences; they had simply been forgotten.
These judicial abuses, I was told, were not uncommon. Even the prison's warden - a mild-mannered, middle-aged colonel - confessed that the Byzantine Guatemalan judicial system frequently ran roughshod over individual civil rights guaranteed by the nation's Constitution.
The prison's medical facilities were even ghastlier than the cellblock. Pavon's infirmary was empty of drugs, medical equipment, and staff. Inmates lay dying of diseases that modern antibiotics could easily treat. A doctor from the outside visited only occasionally. In the main office, an antiquated, broken-down dentist's chair was the only reminder that medical science had evolved since the days of leeching. The shelves were bare; a dozen syringes lay in a metal bowl on the counter. The nurse, a prisoner with no medical training, explained that syringes were used repeatedly because they were in such short supply.
It is tragic, of course, that the inmates have killed innocent hostages. But the real story is that conditions inside the prison are indicative of the decrepit condition of democracy in Guatemala.
Before US government officials next invoke Guatemala as an example of a well-functioning Central American democracy, perhaps they ought to consider the squalor of Pavon.