I was the scribe. In prison everybody eventually finds his own function in terms of his usefulness to the inmate community. You may be the one ‘sticking’ the others, meaning that you decorate them with tattoos; you may be only a cleaner of cells and a washer of clothes; you may be making cakes illegally, or ‘boop-puddings’ as they are called, and selling them for a measure of tobacco; you may be a ‘grocery rabbit’, flogging your dubious sexual charms in return for some tinned food; you may be a ‘boop lawyer’ – often after having been a real one outside, to counsel the legally obsessed; you may be, if I can call it that, an interior decorator – decorating people’s artificial teeth by drilling small holes in them and inserting bits of coloured glass filed down smooth; you may paint and sell your pictures, using coloured toothpaste as pigment, or you may be a sculptor, carving little objects from the prison soap and staining them with prison polish; you may do needlework, embroidery, or patiently build boats and houses from matchsticks; or you could be the bookmaker, running a gambling school.

But I was the scribe. At the outset it was strange that people should approach me, asking me to answer their letters – it impinged upon my sense of privacy. I soon learned that a letter in prison is public property. Those who do not get any mail, even the poor ‘social cases’, can thus vicariously have an outside dimension to their lives. No major decisions in love or in family problems are made without their being discussed widely among the prisoners. (One could also be a love-consultant.) Often this brings about an amount of degradation. I heard one prisoner, Dampies, lying in the ‘bomb’ (the punishment section), sell his fiancée for three packets of tobacco to another prisoner lying in the next-door cell.

Nothing in prison is free. (If a fellow strolls by your cell giving you a broad smile, he is sure to be back within the hour to ask you a favour in return.) You cannot render a service for free either; you must observe the customs or else you’re very suspect. So I had to submit – I objected strenuously – to being given fruit in return for the writing I did for my fellow prisoners. Once I even scored a dictionary from the deal. It was left as payment by an old man whom I had helped, composing his appeal for mercy when his case came up for review. Can you not understand that a man wants to go home and die in peace, Mr Investigator? (This was my line of attack.) He was one of my most successful clients. He left for court. It was near Christmas and the judge, perhaps succumbing to the spirit of the season, released him immediately.

Christmas in Nicaragua