'RIOBAMBA, RIOBAMBA, Riobamba,' came the cry, machine-gun-like, from the woman selling tickets at Quito's main bus station. She was trying to outshout the competition and was winning hands down.

My travelling companion and I had decided to visit Riobamba on the way to Banos and the rainforests of Ecuador's eastern Oriente region. We bought our tickets from the human machine- gun who, throughout, continued her sales pitch without pausing for breath. For most tourists to Ecuador, the town is a stopover between the capital Quito and the largest city Guayaquil or, as in our case, a place to change buses en route to some more interesting

location.

Riobamba lies at the southern tip of the spectacular 'Avenue of the Volcanoes' in Ecuador's central Andean sierra which separates the coast in the west from the jungle of the east. From here there are views of the great volcanoes Chimborazo, Altar and Tungurahua. But the town itself is uninspiring, though not without charm. Its cold and empty early 20th-century hotels give the former colonial town the feel of a dilapidated seaside resort out of season. Stuck for a day there, we were saved by a brief note in the South American Handbook. On page 777 it read:

'In Riobamba jail is a British citizen who welcomes visitors.' That provided a welcome answer to the problem of what to do. We would be given a brief look at the inside of a Latin American prison while at the same time, we hoped, providing someone with a few unexpected goodies, rare English conversation and news from home. It seemed like a fair exchange.

The reality proved slightly different. Any delusions we harboured of entering uncharted territory where no tourist had gone before were dashed as soon as we saw Jimmy's bulging visitors book. His reference in the South American Handbook has ensured that he has become as popular a tourist attraction as the museum of religious art in the local convent.

The taxi driver took us along Riobamba's '10th of August' road to the dusty outskirts where the jail stood alone, away from a scattering of houses and the countryside beyond. The jail, some 300 yards square, was surrounded by a perimeter fence 50ft high.

We arrived fully-laden with preconceived ideas about Latin American justice: they lock you up and throw away the key, while inside a primordial pecking order rules the roost; theft, violence and homosexual rape are daily hazards. Would we have to bribe the guards to let us in? Or out? Suddenly the convent museum of religious art seemed strangely appealing.

We introduced ourselves to the guard at the gate. At first our request for permission to visit was flatly refused: it was a Tuesday and visiting days are Thursdays to Sundays. Fortunately, he didn't take much persuading. There was certainly no need to place a wad of 5,000 sucre ( pounds 2.50) notes in my passport.

After some cursory entrance formalities and a less than exhaustive search - the guard sniffed the coffee through the glass and shook the packet of biscuits - Jimmy was called over the loudspeaker.

We turned and walked towards another gate dividing the male and female wings. A large figure approached dressed in jeans and a denim jacket. A white straw cowboy hat covered grey hair worn long in a ponytail. This was Jimmy.

The three of us walked unescorted through the compound where other inmates were playing volleyball. The sight of two tall and unfamiliar gringos walking across the forecourt provoked giggles and a few stares. Jimmy took us to his cell and let us in with his own key. Clearly if anyone was going to throw away the key it was Jimmy himself.

The room was small with a short bed taking up most of the floor space. It was damp and musty with only a small window for ventilation. The walls were covered with front pages of the Economist, sent to him by the charity Prisoners Abroad. There was a small black and white television and a shortwave radio on a table in front of a stack of books - offerings from previous visitors. A photograph of his teenage daughter, smiling on a sun-drenched yacht, was pinned to the wall.

The prisoner disappeared behind an alcove to boil a kettle. He brought us tea and began to tell us his story: Jimmy is a self-confessed old hippy and a Sixties victim if ever there was one - a South African who spent some years in the Rhodesian army, moved to London at the height of the flower power era before finally going on to Amsterdam. His visit to Ecuador was supposed to last two weeks but agents of the US Drug Enforcement Agency put a stop to that when he was discovered with 2kg of cocaine in his bag. He is now in his eighth year of a 12-year sentence for drug-smuggling, though he is optimistic that an imminent appeal, based on irregularities during his trial, will be successful and he will be released on condition that he live for one year in Riobamba.

Jimmy has written a diary during his stay which he intends to publish after his release. It will be a gripping account of jail life, full of interesting stories some hilarious, others tragic.

The regime inside the jail is, in many ways, more progressive than that in British jails. Within the compound, prisoners are given wide freedoms to do as they wish. Wives and girlfriends are permitted to stay overnight or weekends: sometimes entire families choose to live inside, full-time.

Jimmy is allowed occasional accompanied visits into town. On one of these occasions, after some hard boozing, he abandoned his guard who had become uncontrollably drunk and passed out. Jimmy went off to enjoy himself elsewhere before returning to help his guard back to jail.

The opportunity to escape didn't interest him. In any case, it is a relatively easy task to climb over the prison walls. Armed guards 'patrol' the compound but are regularly caught napping - literally. When breakouts do take place, as they do from time to time, the governor is thrown in jail and the guards' wages docked.

Jail life, however, is a long way from the innocence of an Ealing comedy. His book will no doubt recount gruesome tales of torture and abuse. We were introduced to two women who'd had plastic bags placed over their heads which were repeatedly filled with gas. Other prisoners had been forced to hang from their fingers or had electrodes attached to their genitals.

Jimmy's time in the Rhodesian army had prepared him well for the tough life inside where the most trivial arguments are settled violently.

As a gringo, Jimmy was assumed to be a soft touch. A reputaton as a hard man, and an uncompromising attitude, mean he is no longer bothered.

Our conversation was interrupted briefly for business. There was a knock at the door and a shout. Jimmy responded in perfect Ecuadorean prison Spanish and opened a hatch in the door just big enough to pass through four cigarettes in return for 100 sucres (about 5p). The proceeds from this trade allow him to eat a little better than the other inmates.

So, our visit proved to be an unequal exchange. In return for a jar of Nescafe and a packet of chocolate chip cookies, we were given a fascinating insight into life in this Latin American jail. He was probably more impressed by a German woman who had announced out of the blue in bad English: 'I've never balled in prison before.'

Before we left, a book exchange was completed. I took Bruce Chatwin's aptly titled What Am I doing here? In return, we gave him a copy of Noel Redding's autobiographical account of life with Jimi Hendrix called Are You Experienced?

In Jimmy's case, there can be little doubt about that.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments