“SPA TREATMENTS” read the hand-lettered sign, which seemed perfectly normal…until I remembered I was in a prison, in Mexico!
Outside, a tarp strung between the large trees was flapping in the breeze. Beneath were chairs for chair massage and pedicures. Inside the wooden shack I found one massage table and three therapists – one man, one woman and one of unidentifiable sex. This primitive spa “palace” was in the middle of the courtyard of a prison located in Chetumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico, just a half an hour north of the Belize border.
The woman, who seemed to be the spokesperson for the three, explained, “The prison sent us to Cancún for two months to learn the methods we use – Swedish massage, reflexology, Reiki (the Japanese healing practice) and other techniques. The spa was just added for the inmates and their visitors.” Having learned Reiki myself, I spent a few minutes discussing the technique and the benefits of a prison spa with the therapist.
Wishing them the best of exito (success), I rejoined prison director Victor Terrazas Cervera to explore the rest of this amazing prison.
He showed me the gym, a wood working shop, an arts and crafts workshop, a classroom where language, computer skills and the equivalent of GED are taught. We passed a computer lab, a well stocked library with books in several languages and finally the conjugal “motel” where wives, husbands and significant others can visit for 10 pesos a night (about $1 U.S).
Terrazas Cervera did not wear a gun and was greeted warmly by the prisoners. As we toured the prison, he expounded on his belief that inmates are human beings that make mistakes and are capable of redemption. They should be treated with respect and kindness, something they may never have had. He told me, “In the over ten years that I have been director, there has been no violence and the return rate of released prisoners is very low.” When asked about when inmates have disagreements, he said, “We have them put the gloves on and go three rounds in the ring. Usually they have resolved their differences before the third round.”
After touring the prison we returned to Terrazas Cervera’s office followed by a group of eager inmates who wanted to sell me crafts they had made, or to just try out their English. I bought a few trinkets and the director bought a beautiful carved tropical hardwood staff. Upon leaving, Terrazas Cervera made me a gift of a wooden duck whose neck was an ingenious nutcracker that was made by one of the inmates.
The duck nutcracker sits on my desk, often provoking the thought that it would be a much better world if more prisons took the simple steps taken by Terrazas Cervera to improve the lives of the prisoners.
As a tourist, you can go to the prison’s front gate from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and say you want to buy (comprar) handicrafts (artesanías). The prisoners will bring their art and crafts to the main door of the prison. Some of the finest hammocks in the area are made there. A large hammock will run about $50 U.S., about a fifth of what it would cost in the U.S.