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HISTORY - Mulege's Sanguinez Prison

Baja's Prison of Hope
by Mary Eileen Twytnan

The Conch's wail wafted over Mulegé and slowly settled into the evening's shadows, which were beginning to stretch leisurely across the dusty roadways. Pablo Murillo, playing seal in the Rio Mulegé, trying to swim with as little limb movement and ripple as possible, laughed at his efforts and broke into firm strokes, reaching the bank in seconds. The eerie sound was just fading as he walked up the bank, tossing his blue-black hair out of his eyes with a quick movement that arched a crystal spray against the scattered rays of sunlight still piercing through dense growth to touch the earth. Already dry from the blasting desert heat, he pulled on his trousers. He started walking while carelessly stuffing a corner of his shirt in the back pocket, leaving the rest to hang flagging behind him as his long strides turned him up hill. He felt pretty darn good. He looked up toward his destination, the imposing building situated on the hill's highest point—Sanguinez Prison. His growing sense of well-being made it hard for even him to believe he was a prisoner.

In fact, today, that jolt of amazement made him smile as he thought about the pesos nestled deep in his pocket and his cache of many more buried in his cell. His thoughts turned to that wary eyed little boy that was himself, born and raised in a grim Baja California village. It seemed his family was always scraping and scratching to survive, never sure, once one sparse meal was finished, where the next one would come from. That boy, that family seemed so far away, yet Pablo knew that boy and that family were the very basis of his firm determination to be the best he could be, for himself and mostly for them. He had become an excellent thief, and the relief his efforts brought to his unquestioning family were reward enough to spur him on—until the night when, cornered and threatened with capture, he killed a man.

With a harsh effort of will, he headed off this downward thrust of his thoughts. The padre had assured him he was forgiven, that the rest of his life was not meant to be spent mired and trapped in guilt. Pablo reached the entrance of the stockade, but before he walked in he let his eyes roam over Mulegé, and his thoughts soared with his gaze. Growing up with nothing but burning sand under his feet and as far as he could see in all directions, this encompassing view of Mulegé's thick green vegetation and freely flowing water never failed to refresh his spirit, even more so than his daily swim in the Rio Mulegé refreshed his body.

When he was a young boy, Pablo would sit at the window, his mother's homemade curtains fluttering around him in the warm breeze, and look past the lean cow and scrawny chickens, his brothers and sisters playing in the dirt yard, and try to imagine what lay beyond the jagged mountains rising from the distant desert floor.

When he first came to Sanguinez, knotted in despair and homesickness, he had taken a piece of charcoal from the edge of the fire and drawn a crude window on the wall of his cell. He had even drawn the curtains to look like they were being lifted by a gentle breeze. At night when he lay on his bunk, his mind's eye projecting the scene of his home on his sketched window, the flickering firelight indeed made the charcoaled curtains appear to flutter.

One of Pablo's boyhood friends had come to Mulegé. He had talked with him this very afternoon. Juan had brought him news of his family, news that had lifted and eased the tremendous weight of worry that always seemed jammed somewhere between his shoulders, bound there by invisible chains, relentless in their savage, constricting grip around his back and across his chest. Mama and Papa were well and lovingly cared for by his brothers and sisters. It was hard for him to perceive all of his brothers and sisters but the youngest being married, even more astonishing to hear that he was an uncle, several times.

They were all still poor, very poor. The plan, his plan, that always lay dormant somewhere at the base of his being, nourishing his dogged determination, leapt forward in his thoughts with startling clarity. His plan had been conceived the day he had talked with the padre, and had realized he no longer had to labor under his guilt. On that day, he had realized that Sanguinez Prison was not a house of punishment for him, but a new beginning. He had jobs, working wherever the townspeople needed him. And, because of his bold way of wading into and furiously diminishing whatever work was set before him, it was Pablo Murillo the townspeople sought out to work in the date and banana groves that flourished in Mulegé. The pesos buried in the floor of his cell attested to the many years of hard work behind him. He would soon be free.

In an effort to will his days even more swiftly to that end, he leaned even more ferociously into the body-wrenching toil that brought nights of deep, satisfied sleep. It wouldn't be long before his plan would be reality. When he was free, he would return home. Then, he would bring Mama and Papa to Mulegé. He would buy a farm. Maybe his brothers and sisters would come too. Mulegé had plenty of work.

When Colonel Sanguinez was governor of Baja California, he built this unique prison on a hill overlooking Mulegé in 1906, naming it after himself. Mulegé, being an oasis, is a virtual garden. Because its productivity far outstripped the ability of its residents to keep up with it, it didn't take long for the people to tap the wealth of manpower housed in the cells behind the brick and plaster, guard-towered stockade.

It was out of Mulegé's need that a unique honor system evolved for the inmates of Sanguinez. There were a few incorrigibles who were not included in this program, but during the 59 years of its operation, most of the prisoners merely slept at the prison in open cells, eating meals prepared by the wife of one of them. Their days were spent working, wherever needed, in Mulegé. They were even paid for their labor. The townspeople had no fear at all of the prisoners. On a typical workday, the only way to tell the prisoners from the free was that at 6 p.m. a guard would climb up to one of the stockade's corner watchtowers and blow a conch shell, and various men could be seen breaking away and filing up the hill toward the prison. These men were so trusted and accepted by the local people that at the completion of their terms, many of them stayed in Mulegé, marrying and raising families. Even today the identities of these ex-prisoners and their descendants are intensely yet politely protected from outsiders, "for the sake of their families."

In 1965, its residents reduced to only three, Sanguinez Prison was closed. Pigeons thrive there now, nesting in the 53 cells. Jose Luis, an expoliceman, lives there too, in what was once the kitchen. He has made Sanguinez his home "because he likes it" (no rent). He also serves as a "guard" for the occasional drunk, gringo as well as Mexican, that may be in need of a place to sleep it off. The 53 back-to-back cells form a square around an open courtyard within the stockade. In the center of this courtyard is a container that was used for water. A roaring fire was also lit here every night to fight off the chill. On the left wall, looking out into the courtyard, is someone's sketch of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Exploration of the cells reveals a lot of graffiti, which has accumulated over the last 15 years, but closer inspection reveals old faded drawings, names of family members and dates—segments and traces, glimpses into a multi-faceted diary ripped from the pages of many lives. All of the prisoners at Sanguinez Prison were men. A very few of them were hardened criminals, and another small minority of them were mentally ill. There seems to have been only one known escape attempt. A man scaled and leaped from the wall of the stockade, and was shot and killed by one of the guards. Why escape? The rehabilitation program unwittingly proposed by the people of Mulegé was a better way of life than any of the prisoners had known. It offered hope, and a future, as the priest had promised, free of guilt.

Republished with permission from Desert Magazine, May 1981.

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