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Black coral at the Pochutla Prison

by Richard Malmed
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We had heard talk of the prison in Pochutla and rumors of the black coral that they fabricated items from as early as 1972. Pochutla was still on the other side of the world because a 16 hour drive to Oaxaca and back down to Pochutla was what was involved in getting there from Puerto Escondido. My wife and I were never interested in jewelry and we had bought Mexico out of handicrafts on our first few trips, but the adventure of this prison visit stayed with us.
On the next few visits, we asked about the prison and were reinforced with the coral stories. Puerto Escondido had a jail at that time; it was on the north side of town, where the chain is now more or less. Watching the Puerto Escondido jail we came to understand a bit how the Mexican penal system differed from ours, with families coming and going etc.
When the road opened up to Pochutla we drove there in search of the prison but ran into an unfriendly atmosphere and retreated. We tried this on about three different years and all but gave up, but continued to ask about it and continued to get reinforcement that there was a prison there and they made things out of black coral.
About five or six years ago my wife, a friend of many Puerto Escondido trips, and myself decided that if we got there before 7:00 a.m. we would avoid the unfriendly atmosphere and find the prison. We asked a few people and got to the outside of a building that was kind of like it was out of the Zorro TV series of long ago. We were in bathing suits looking around when we were approached by two armed guards. What did we want? We want to go into the prison. You cannot go into the prison. (My Spanish was not very good, but I persisted.) We have to go into the prison. They were still on their "no" kick.

Pochutla prison
One of the appeals that Mexico has always had for me is that I have a feeling that I can make things happen there and have more control of my own destiny than I do in New York. I continued to press and, borrowing the identity of a friend, told the guards in what is probably the worst Spanish they ever heard that I was a doctor of the head from New York and worked in the prison there and that I wanted to go in. They were not impressed.
Okay, I said in desperation, I want to buy coral. The guards went into their booth and returned with what retrospectively I remember as a beautiful peace of black coral jewelry. I don't like that one, I said, I want to go in. The guards again went away and returned moments later with the Warden(?) who was dressing from sleep and zipping his pants as he appeared. What do you want, he asked. We want to go into the prison. What for? To buy coral. He produced a peace of coral and I said no. He than led my wife, my friend and myself, clad in only bathing suits into the prison.
It was old and dark and once upon a time painted that institutional Mexican green, but chipped and faded now. We went up a flight of stairs and passed a pit that was about 25' long and 12' wide. We looked down into it and it was very densely packed with Mexican Nationals in a semi catatonic state with no reaction to us. We noticed them and I started thinking of the movie Midnight Express. I thought of this movie all of the time that I was in the prison and for a long time after because that is how it was.
The warden brought us into another room. This room was empty about 10' by 20'. All walls were stucco except for one wall that was bars from the floor to the top of the ceiling about 20' high. On the other side of the bars there was like a regular Oaxacan village. Palm huts, dirt floors, etc. There were a few men just sitting around. The warden went up to the bars and pounded them with a peace of metal. "CORAL", he yelled. The warden then left the room and locked the door behind him.
Their was an instant eruption of men and screaming noise. They were all over every inch of the bars at every level screaming at us and holding handfuls of crude coral items. It was overpowering the intensity and the noise... My friend went to the corner and just sat and stared. Something was thrown at me, hit my shoulder and fell to the ground, where I looked to see a bunch of necklaces. Still dazed I thought to myself that this is one man's life work and picked it up to approach the bars to return it to who knows who. Someone grabbed my arm and pulled me up to the bars tightly; everyone was yelling for us to buy their coral. I pulled away and, once free, looked at the total picture and recognized this as something to remember. I yelled over the noise to my wife that we should try and buy something to have as a memento of this. We bought a few rings, necklaces, pipes, etc. and began to realize that we were locked in.
We began to bang on the door, and shortly afterward the guards came and got us and escorted us out. We drove away fast and stopped about a mile down the road to just laugh and scream amongst ourselves.
I have a book of rules of thumb that has a rule it that says "Adventures are never fun when they are happening"; this was a true adventure. It made a huge impression upon me and I thought about it a lot.
I have planned a return trip to the Pochutla Prison with packs of cigarettes to quiet them down so I could talk to someone. I will go back. The rush was very exciting.

Richard Malmed

Baskets at the Pochutla Prison

Prison Article Stirs Controversy

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