Sunday, 5 June 2011

The hard cell

Let's get this out of the way first. The Shawshank Redemption is a stone cold classic. Even though it barely made back its production budget when released in cinemas, it didn't take too long to become a universally loved favourite. But even classics can be prone to cliché, and Shawshank is no exception.

There's the wrongly convicted man, psychopathic guards, strip-search induction, weepy new fish, a corrupt warden, maggoty food and a kindly old-timer. It's like a lag's greatest hits compilation. Plus, of course, there's all the touching scenes of male bonding, as well as plenty more scenes of male touching. If you believe the movies, there are two guarantees when it comes to prison life - manicure kits covered in cake frosting, and more aggressive man-on-man action than one of Michael Barrymore's pool parties.

So far, so predictable. Surely there's another side to life in the lock-up, besides the rapey inmates and socks full of snooker balls? For an alternative view of prison life, try picking up the DVD boxsets of Prison Break. Admittedly, its over-reliance on 'deus ex machina' plotting made it about as believable as Ryan Giggs' marriage vows, but even so, there were moments of surprising authenticity in amongst the tattooed blueprints and hot prison doctors.

Sensing that the man-on-the-run plotting of season two was in danger of losing the show's core concept, the writers decided to send their heavily-inked hero back to the clink in his third outing. Only this time, he was going to be slopping out in Panama. Rather than dealing with corrupt staff, genius engineer Michael Scofield found himself at the mercy of the inmates who had taken over the prison during a recent riot. In Sona, the only armed guards were the ones who patrolled the perimeter, with everything else falling under the jurisdiction of Lechero, a Panamanian drug kingpin. Sounds ridiculous, but it turns out, the writing team was bang on the money.

According to a new report in the New York Times, in Latin America at least, penal reform means leaving the lunatics to run the asylum. San Antonio prison on Margarita Island in Venezuela might be surrounded with sharpshooters in watchtowers, but inside it's more like Club 18-30, just with fewer tattoos.

Outdoor pools, conjugal visits, Playboy murals and even a cockfighting arena - it's no wonder the island's many holiday makers are sure to include a day-trip to San Antonio as part of their itinerary. The one-way security checks are a big bonus: walk in empty-handed, and waltz out a few hours later laden with enough crack to keep Whitney Houston hitting the high-notes for a fortnight.

Under the benevolent leadership of Teófilo Rodríguez, inmates and their guests enjoy barbecues and whisky by the pool, plus cable TV and air-conditioning in their cells. Kids are welcome too, and there's an onsite photographer who can Photoshop you and your family into a variety of backgrounds. OK, so most of the prisoners are armed, either with AK-47s and M-16s, or BlackBerries for scheduling those all-important drug deals, kidnappings and murders. But at least you don't have to put up with a Thomas Cook rep trying to sell you eight hours on a catamaran, with a complimentary pork chop at lunchtime.

Forget about rehabilitation and reform, this is just a package holiday where the package happens to be wrapped in clingfilm and muled through the security checkpoint. And even if you do have to dodge the occasional grenade attack whilst visiting the infirmary, it still beats the shit out of Magaluf.

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