Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Entering the Global Field: Talk, Travel and Narrative Practice in Ecuadorian Prisons

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Entering the Global Field: Talk, Travel and Narrative Practice in Ecuadorian Prisons

Article excerpt

Introduction

Before I was an ethnographer, I was a backpacker. In 2002, I spent two months in Ecuador learning Spanish and 'travelling', like many other middle-class, white British kids. During a month long stay in Quito, I heard I could visit Brits imprisoned for drug trafficking. With little deliberation, I noted down the instructions and the following Wednesday set off for the men's prison with my passport, the name of the inmate I would visit, and a carrier bag of cigarettes, chocolate, and toilet paper (these being the things I thought a prisoner from home might like).

Garcia Moreno prison is downtown, high up on the side of the valley about ten blocks from the presidential palace. The San Roque neighbourhood is poor and rarely visited by most Quiteños, let alone tourists. On a clear day, the views across the city are spectacular; small comfort for the long queue of visitors lined up outside under the baking midday sun. I had never visited a prison before, but was soon ushered through bag and body searches, jostling alongside prisoners' friends and family members, most carrying packages (one family even carried a mattress). Guards painstakingly unpacked suitcases full of clothes and stabbed birthday cakes and tubs of food for contraband. Finally, near the main door, we handed over our identification and the name of the prisoner we were visiting was carefully entered, by hand, into a hefty ledger. Finally, our credentials checked (we were stamped on our forearms for every search), we were finally ushered inside.

Built in 1875, Garcia Moreno prison is star shaped, like London's Pentonville. The walls are thick stone with small windows: its corridors dark and cold in contrast with the equatorial sun. We passed the kitchen where inmates stirred cauldrons of slop over massive fires, and quickly arrived in the centre of the 'star'. Here, visitors enter the prison. There is no visit room. A short, scruffily dressed man found me in the crowd and asked who I wanted to visit: we quickly established that the man I planned to see had left and instead he took me to El Británico, the British man. He led me up two flights of stairs, dirty with stagnant water and rubbish and along the second floor balcony to the end, banging noisily on a heavy cell door, which was locked from the inside. A small metal grate slide to the side, and two eyes frowned. 'I've come to visit', I said, holding up my bag of gifts. A moment or two later, the door clanked open. 'I'm Paul', he said.1

This article offers a 'confessional' about how I came to undertake fieldwork with drug traffickers imprisoned in Ecuador with the aim of 'explicitly demystifying fieldwork... by showing how the technique is practiced in the field' (Van Maanen, 2011:73). Fieldwork for my PhD was begun during my undergraduate degree, finally published some years later (Fleetwood 2014). As the above account shows, getting into prison was remarkably straightforward. In fact fieldwork for my undergraduate dissertation was undertaken during visit days. I eventually sought formal research access, but only many years after access had been established informally.2 Although methodological issues around formally gaining access to criminal justice institutions are important, this article is instead concerned with the sociological and cultural dynamics that enabled me to enter prisons in Ecuador as an outsider. This fieldwork, researching international drug trafficking, offers some insights into entering a global field, by examining the ways in which new categories of in/out are constituted. Drawing on field notes, I consider how entry was gained, especially storytelling as a central aspect of the culture of drug traffickers in prison and the backpackers (like me) who visited them. My account is prefaced by a review of how ethnographers have successfully gained entry into global fields that are criminal or deviant. This article is mainly concerned with how I gained entry into the men's prison. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.