How I went from teaching English to a Brazilian jail hell
Capetonian ex-drug mule's book tells of being locked up in notorious prison and what he learned about life there
A former South African drug mule has written a tell-all book about his four-year ordeal inside a Brazilian prison, where he was surprised to meet several compatriots.
Gary Lee Smith, 59, who once sold insurance in Cape Town, could only watch as his life imploded in just a few seconds when his luggage was searched while trying to leave Brazil in 2010. Instead of postcards from Copacabana, he was carrying 3.3kg of cocaine powder. “White powder just came gushing out. It was catastrophic,” said Smith, who now sells mustard to food outlets in the Cape Peninsula.
At his subsequent trial in Sao Paulo, Smith pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, but insisted he had been conscripted to smuggle dagga, not cocaine, while working as an English teacher in Thailand. It mattered not that Smith told his trial judge that he had made a grave error of judgment in an attempt to earn a quick buck; he was sentenced to five years and 10 months.
Almost as surprising as Smith’s contraband luggage was the life he discovered inside Brazil’s prisons – including the notorious Itai Penitentiary, nicknamed ‘The Tower of Babel’ due to its forbidding façade – which Smith set out to catalogue in a series of prison diaries, later to prove helpful in writing Rice Beans & Abandoned Dreams – A South African’s life in a Brazilian Prison. The self-published book gives a candid account of interpersonal dynamics behind bars, and includes reference to South African government officials who helped Smith keep in touch with his family and friends. There is also an account of a major prison riot, during which Smith was injured and physically abused by riot police.
A surprising feature of the book is the heartwarming friendships forged under difficult circumstances, including with fellow South Africans, several of them imprisoned for drug trafficking. Smith also describes the “tunnel vision” phenomenon of inmates obsessing about apparent trivia, which assume far more significance in the prison environment – such as access to cigarettes or cleaning duties. In one chapter he relates how inmates regularly “fished” for items left out in the open – literally casting out hooked lines to try and snag unattended foodstuffs or equipment.
Upon his release in 2014, Smith returned to South Africa and ended up living in the Karoo, returning to Cape Town earlier this year. He told Times Select he wrote the book partly as “healing” and partly because of prompting from friends who felt his story would be of interest. “A friend said the story has appeal, and I realised that I needed to take it seriously.” He finished a first version of the book last year and republished it three months ago.
Of the writing process inside prison, Smith said: “Obviously I had oodles of time, which is why I started keeping a diary. This proved quite useful when there were arguments inside the cell. We would go back to my diary and say, look, on this day you said so and so – it would clear up a lot of things.”
He said he felt there was no point concealing his prison conviction, as he felt he needed to embrace the experience and its impact on his life: “I felt that I needed to be transparent and didn’t want any lies. I want people to judge me for the person I am. Maybe a prospective employer won’t take a chance on me – it’s a blip on my CV! But I think honesty is a better policy. I don’t want to become an old fart who keeps on harping on about prison life – I want to move on,” Smith said.
Smith said he always enjoyed writing at school and had been encouraged by a favourite English teacher: “I always thought I would probably write a book about sport, preferably on rugby or cricket,” he says in his book. “Little did I know, however, that I would write about my time in prison.”
Is he a changed man? “I’m sure I have changed for the good and bad. Hopefully, the good will outweigh the bad,” he writes in his final chapter. “If anything, my perspective of life has changed radically for the better. I value and appreciate the small things in life. I take nothing for granted any more and hold onto every day as if it were my last.”