Cárcel Modelo

by | Oct 19, 2022

In the morning two guards removed the body of the kid. Orderlies gave each of us a bread roll and a tin cup with coffee and sugar. Later in the morning another guard came in and told the three black men who were in for drunkenness that they were being released. They stood and shook my hand. As I took the hand of the last one I could feel him pass me what felt like a slip of paper. I closed my fist so no one else could see it, and after the three left I opened my palm. It was a twenty-dollar bill. When Candace and I had been arrested, I had asked if I could take a few things with me, and I was allowed to gather in a small stuffsack a few dollar bills, a pouch of tobacco, paper, and pen. I put the twenty in the stuffsack.

I spent the day sitting on my scrap of cardboard, leaning against the bare concrete wall. I rolled a cigarette. I didn’t smoke much, but now the tobacco was comforting.

“If you run out, you can buy cigarettes at the kiosk,” a guy sitting next to me said. “If you have money.”

“The kiosk?”

“It’s next to the cafeteria, where you have meals.”

“They haven’t let us go there yet.”

“This is the holding cell. That’s after you get transferred upstairs, to a permanent cell. If you’re going to be here for a while.”

Be here for a while? I leaned back against the wall and drew on my cigarette. Why hadn’t I heard from anybody? Was I wrong and maybe Charlie did have marijuana hidden on the boat that I didn’t know about? There was something about Charlie I had never trusted. On the other hand, there was something about Bill that I did trust. But was Charlie really planning on trading the ammo for emeralds? Or was it dope all along?

Two days later—my fourth in the holding cell—a guard escorted me to a small room with a table where a middle-aged man in a suit was sitting in one of the two chairs. He introduced himself as a representative of the US Consulate in Panama.

“I’ve been told the Panamanians are investigating your case to decide whether or not to charge you with possession of marijuana.”

“But there was only a small amount, and it wasn’t mine.”

“I’ve been told they are investigating.”

“Where is Candace?”

“Miss Davenport is in the women’s prison. The investigation includes her.”

“What about the others?”

“I understand they’re in the Canal Zone, where the Panamanians of course cannot arrest them. But they are also under investigation. They’ve retained a lawyer, and he is in contact with our embassy.”

An hour later I was transferred to a permanent cell on the second floor. There were eight others in a space maybe eight feet wide by twelve feet long. The two most tenured inmates—a Creole in his early thirties and a wiry mestizo who looked to be in his mid-twenties—slept in bunk beds against the wall, and everyone else slept on cardboard. There was no toilet, but the cell faced a corridor that had a latrine at the end, and I soon learned the drill was to hold your arm out the bars and yell “llave” (“key” in Spanish) and the guards would signal when you had permission to leave. The cell doors were actually left unlocked—so you just walked the corridor to the latrine—but the corridor itself had double-locked doors, and the guards followed you with their rifles partially raised.

The second day after my transfer two guards came to my cell and ordered me to go with them. They escorted me to a small room where there were two other men in civilian clothes who I assumed were interrogators. There were three chairs and a small desk. They indicated one of the chairs and told me sit. I tried to calm myself with the fact there were no visible electric wires or whips or any signs of blood splatter on the walls.

“Where is the marijuana?”

“We are not going to hurt you,” the other one added.

I didn’t know a good cop from a bad cop, but I had already decided my strategy was to tell them the truth. There was no crime in that, right, unless there was some offense in ordering 50,000 rounds of .22 shells.

The interrogators repeated their alternating threats and assurances, and I repeated the same story, and after what seemed an interminable time, the guards took me back to my cell. My cellmates didn’t ask what had happened, and I didn’t offer. The next day the same two men came back, and after another hour of giving the same answers, I was again returned to my cell.

During my interrogation, I had left my stuffsack on the lower bunk bed and now it was gone.

“Where’s my sack?”

No one answered.

“Which one of you took my sack?”

“What sack?” the wiry mestizo said. He occupied the lower bunk and I had concluded, even though he was young, he called the shots.

“My small red bag.”

He shrugged his shoulders and following his lead the others ignored me. I sat on the lower bunk; I’d learned it was OK to sit on the bunk during the day, but when it was time to go to sleep, you had to sit on your cardboard and give the bunk to its owner. But it was not going to be OK if I did nothing about my missing sack. It wasn’t the contents; it was about what would happen if I didn’t do anything. I had no idea how long I was going to be in prison. A week? A month? A year? If I was stuck in this lower rung of hell, I knew that doing nothing about my stuffsack would be the beginning. The beginning of abuse, of bullying, of…

I sat on the bunk, hands folded, arms resting on my knees, looking down. I could see the legs and feet of my cellmates. They resumed talking, standing at the one window with its columns of metal bars, stepping with desultory repetition to the one door with its columns of metal bars. Could I find the courage? In school I had never been in a fight. I had never taken up boxing. Other than scraps with my little brother when we were kids, I’d never punched anyone. Could I do it now?

I could see the feet of the ringleader walk from the window to the door. When I knew his back was to me, I pushed off with as much force as I could muster and drove his head as hard as I could into the barred door. I cocked my arm and drove my fist into the side of his head. I could hear the yells erupt from the others, and I cocked my arm again but they were on top of me and punching me and yells came from the other cells and I could hear whistles blow and feet running.


The guards were in our cell telling everyone to get on their feet. As the guys got off my back, one of them whispered, “As soon as you go to sleep, you are dead.”

I got to my feet. The guards had their rifles at the ready position, fingers on triggers.

Que pasa!” one demanded.

“They stole my things,” I said.

“So what,” another guard replied.

“Where’s the gringo’s sack?” another guard said. He was a large man and overweight, and I had the sense he was the lead guard.

“No one stole anything,” the ringleader said dismissively. He had a small cut on his head, and I was disappointed it wasn’t bigger.

“Give me the gringo’s things,” a voice said.

Everyone turned, including the guards. It was a prisoner from the opposite cell, standing outside my cell door. He was about fifty, a mestizo with close-cropped gray hair and black eyes; his shirt was always carefully tucked into his pants. I had already noticed that each day, when we were escorted to the concrete courtyard for our hour of recreation, everyone nodded when he passed and said deferentially, “Buenas dias, Magellan.”

“Give me the gringo’s things,” Magellan said again.

The ringleader lifted the mattress on his bunk to expose a cut in the stuffing. He pulled out my stuffsack and handed it to Magellan.

“I want the gringo in my cell,” Magellan said to the head guard.

The guard nodded and led me across the corridor to Magellan’s cell.

“That took guts,” Magellan said.

I shook my head, too rattled to reply.

“I like men with guts,” he added as he drew on his cigarette. He then turned and introduced me to my new cellmates.

* * *

There were no more interrogations. Ten days passed, and each day was the same—waking before dawn with guards in front of and behind us going downstairs to the cafeteria for a breakfast of black coffee and bread, back upstairs to our cell where we sat on our swatches of cardboard and told stories. Downstairs for lunch followed by an hour in the concrete courtyard with a tower on one end manned by two guards with automatic rifles. Back to the cell, out for dinner, back in, and finally to sleep when, on the nights I counted as lucky, the dream of white birds returned.

I was never able to discern the source of Magellan’s influence, but it was manifest in the deference all the prisoners gave him. Even the guards treated him with respect, never ordering him around, never motioning with the barrels of their rifles to move more quickly up and down the stairs. One day, standing at the window of my cell looking past the prison wall, I asked Magellan why he was in prison.


After a pause, he added, “He deserved to be killed.”

I spent most of my days staring out the window. From the second floor I could see over the outside wall past the bordering street to a cemetery opposite the prison. The cemetery in turn had a low wall around it that was painted the same eggshell white as the wall bordering the prison, with the same lavender trim along the top.

“Why do you think the wall around that cemetery is painted just like the prison?” I asked Magellan.

“Maybe it’s efficiency. We die here and get buried there.”

“It’s all so… evil.”

“That’s the Cárcel Modelo.”

“Cárcel Modelo?”

“The official name of this place. The Model Prison.”

One night our routine was broken when the prison sirens began to scream. We all crowded to the window. The beams of searchlights swept the walls, and in the small alleyway below our window, we heard guards calling to each other. Then there was the rapid-fire cracking of automatic rifles and more yells.

“It’s a breakout,” one of my cellmates said.

There was cheering from the other cells, and then two guards ran down our corridor, rifles in hand, telling everyone to shut up. The automatic weapon fire stopped. Magellan was quiet, and I couldn’t tell if that was because he knew what had happened or because he didn’t know what had happened. For him, either one posed a challenge.

Eventually Magellan returned to his bunk, and the rest of us laid down on our cardboard and returned to the one escape we all had, sleep. In the morning at breakfast the news circulated from one table to the next. Four men had tried to escape. All four had been shot to death.

While the risk of being shot was palpable in every rifle held by every guard at the prison, the even greater threat felt by everyone, even Magellan, was an event held once a week when, as part of our mid-day sojourn in the courtyard, we would have to stand at attention in rows as one of the guards appeared with a clipboard. Everyone stared at their feet as the guard read the names. When someone was called, others patted him on the back as he stepped aside. Twice I saw men cry when their name was called, and over the weeks, as I heard more stories about their fates, I understood why. They were being sent to Coiba, a prison island off the coast of Panama that sounded nothing less than the equivalent of Devil’s Island.

There were stories of torture. Stories of a pond of crocodiles that got nothing to eat until another prisoner was thrown in. Stories of unrelenting hard labor. I would have taken the stories as apocryphal, except for a fellow prisoner who had come back from Coiba no longer able to talk. The back of his neck had a large gap grown over with scar tissue. Inmates told me that a Coiba guard had put his pistol into the prisoner’s mouth and pulled the trigger, blowing off one side of his neck. The prisoner had somehow survived and for reasons no one knew, been returned to Cárcel Modelo to serve out his sentence.

I feared my name being called, as everyone did, but my situation was made worse by the fact I had no idea what my own sentence might be, or even if I had one. Most of the inmates had sentences ordered by judges, or what passed for them under Torrijos’s rule. I had been in jail nearly a month, and had no way to know if I would be in for another month, another year, another two years―or more.

* * *

Two days later a guard came to my cell and ordered me to go with him. He escorted me to a small room where a Panamanian in a suit and tie told me he was my lawyer. He explained he had been retained by the two women who were Miss Davenport’s friends. He said they had all been working diligently for weeks to arrange our release, and they were making good progress, and both Candace and I would likely soon be out of prison.

Later that day I was told by fellow prisoners that the friend of mine who owned the sailboat was in our prison. The next day in the concrete courtyard I saw Bill.

“What happened?”

“I turned myself in.”

They had retained a lawyer who tried and failed to get our release, he explained,and finally they had changed lawyers and the new one—the one I had met—had convinced Bill that everything would move forward more quickly if Bill turned himself in.

“Where’s Charlie?”

“He disappeared as soon as we got the news you guys were in jail.”

“So there was no more dope on the boat?”

“Only that pouch that Charlie had. And the rifle I had down below—I don’t have a permit. But the lawyer explained most boats have a rifle, for protection.”

“What about the .22 shells?”

“That’s the biggest problem. They just assumed we were about to do a major deal, with all the ammo we had ordered. But the lawyer thinks he can resolve it, especially since I turned myself in. I’ll have to pay some money, but I’m confident I’ll get out soon.”

I was released two days later and rendezvoused with Candace and her friends for a celebratory dinner. She told me that after we had been separated in the waiting room of the Cárcel Modelo, she was taken to a women’s prison elsewhere in Panama City. She was treated fairly, until one day she was escorted to the office of the pock-faced Manuel Noriega. His proposition was straightforward: sex for freedom. So was Candace’s reply: go fuck yourself.

The next day I wrote my mother, explaining why she hadn’t heard from me for a month. I mailed it from the Canal Zone, where I knew the postal service would have it to her in a few days, but then decided to spend some of the little money I had to call her, so I could explain what had happened before the letter arrived.

“Richard!” she said after I had said hello. “I haven’t heard from you… is everything OK?”

I told her I had been in jail, and I could tell by the way she said, “Oh …” she was shocked, and I could hear she was in tears when I told her I was OK, and that a letter would arrive soon with the details, and I couldn’t talk for too long because it cost too much, and I was thinking of going to South America but that I would be very careful not to break any laws.

Now that Candace was freed, her friends wanted to return to the United States, but Candace still had more than seven months before she started law school, and she didn’t want to spend it back in the States.

“I’m going to South America. You want to come?”

Over the next two months, by combination of hitchhiking and low fares on cheap buses, we traveled through Colombia and Ecuador. In Peru we arrived just as an intense El Niño started, and we had to flee a coastal city as it was flooding. We spent more money than we wanted on a DC-3 flight to Lima.

By then, including my time on the Astral sailing through the South Pacific, I had been traveling for over a year.

“I want to stay in Lima for a while,” I told her. “Take a few classes at the university. Go back to school.”

It was a hard decision. I wanted to travel with Candace to the southern parts of South America. But if I enrolled in the university I might get credits that would help me get into graduate school, and equally important, I could arrange for the school to proctor my exam from the University of Hawai‘i, and get my diploma.

I was in love with Candace but she wanted to be only friends, albeit a deep friendship. I had to learn how to make it a different kind of love, and though it took me a while, I managed to do that, and that meant a lot to Candace. We said good-bye in Lima, hugging each other tightly. I watched her get on a cheap bus by herself, pack over her shoulder, no fear of traveling alone. She sent aerograms from Bolivia and Chile and Argentina.

I enrolled in three advanced anthropology courses, and told the dean at the Universidad Católica about my deal with the dean at the University of Hawai‘i. After a few weeks the final exam arrived by mail. A professor sat with me in a room while I took the test.

Several weeks later my diploma arrived. I remembered my resolve when I had sailed from Hawai‘i, in what seemed like a past lifetime: that whatever it took, I would complete my side of the deal I’d made with the dean. Now I had done it. I was a college graduate. I held the diploma in my hand, but it didn’t seem as important as I had once expected it would be.