Alexandre Roig, Instituto Nacional de Altos Estudios Sociales (IDAES), Universidad Nacional de San Martín (UNSAM)/Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) &
Waldemar Cubilla, Sociedad, Economía y Polítcia-Teoría Social Aplicada (SEP-TeSA), Lectura Mundi, UNSAM
Translated by Taylor C. Nelms
The entrance to the blue cellblock of the prison was not easy. It is not clear to me if I have the right to be there or not. As a professor at the prison’s university studies center, I am a foreign body, but the guard lets me in with a look that is neither suspicious nor authoritarian, but of someone bored by the recurrence of movement. The inmates accompanying me rapidly adopt the posture of uncomfortable hosts. A prideless hospitality in an undesired “home.” Still, they look to be careful, tidy, as orderly as possible.
I exit the shower room with a white towel around my waist, and seeing the professor, I quicken my pace to meet him. I know we are going to talk about a research project that we are undertaking together—about money in a world where it’s prohibited, but where its existence is unmistakable, especially in relation to the telephone. In fact, for our project I obtained the document of a friend that speaks to how telephone cards are used by inmates in the prison.
We are seated drinking mate, a burner lit on the stove nearby, waiting for the next kettle of hot water in a large room that acts as kitchen and dining room.1 To the left, what is called la matera (literally, the place where mate is consumed), where the guards generally sit, but which in this case serves as a study room. A door from the dining room opens onto the courtyard. In the center of the courtyard, a place to do laundry; surrounding it, walls and barbed wire. Between religious paintings and plastic flowers, there is a corridor and sixteen metal doors (eight on each side), for each of the cells where the inmates live out their confinement in pairs.
There are three telephones. The first is below an image of Christ in the dining room. Two others can be found at the end of the corridor, one for each of side of eight cells. A wire emerges from each telephone and is distributed like a rhizome among the cells. After eight o’clock p.m., when the rates decrease, a system for making calls starts up. The telephone passes from cell to cell according to a principle of circulation that allots thirty minutes per cell—that is, fifteen minutes per prisoner. It takes four hours for everyone to be able to talk. Each day, the circuit starts with a different cell. The calls are made through a fixed apparatus that is connected manually to wires in each cell stripped of their protective insulation.
Until recently, regulating telephone use could be contentious. Although cell phones are banned, since their incorporation, the number of conflicts has dropped, even as the confiscation of the phones themselves has increased. Today around 80% of the inmates have cell phones. Calling from the landline or from a cell phone requires using prepaid phone cards, which enter the prison freely as plastic during visits or as numbers transmitted immaterially by voice.
But the use of such phone cards is not limited to the calls they make possible; they can also be converted, in order to exchange them, into money. The nominal value on the card, or the number of pesos remaining on it, are converted into units of account and means of payment, due to the shared need to communicate with the “outside.” Some keep precise accounts of their expenditures. In this record from 2011 (above), it is possible to make out a column of dates, each day followed by the number of the card and after a dot, the amount of the card. This daily inscription results in a final balance: 175 pesos in January and the express desire in February to “reduce expenses.” The meticulous and systematic listing of January transforms into messier inscriptions truncated on the twelfth day of February when a green ring encircles “75$.” The record is interrupted; expenses were not reduced. It picks up again in March, this time with the costs noted only during the first days of the month; afterwards only the card numbers are recorded. In a square set apart, a declaration made by hand for oneself but intended for another who is not there, one of those scribbles written while talking on the telephone. Half a heart opens onto “I love you Vane … Leo,” closed by the heart’s other half.2
Calling, spending, recording, trying to spend less, declaring one’s love—these actions turn the document into a synthesis of multiple ties in the world of the prison. But there is something about this archive that for us is key. The painstaking inscription of the card numbers happens prior to their expenditure. In this sense, there is no reason to assume that all of the money was spent on calls. The numbers, that is, can be used to buy other goods inside the prison. Some were indeed used this way, transformed into means of payment. Each fragment of this document, this piece of paper torn from a notebook, is also a coin, which can disappear in a call or circulate in exchange. It represents at once a technological platform for accounting, for payment, for access to communication via telephone, for disciplining spending practices, and for declarations of love.
1 Mate is a tea-like drink popular in Argentina and often consumed in social settings.
2 “Vane” is short for “Vanesa.”
A new post on accounting, telephones, and love in Argentine prisons on the TRANSACTIONS blog.