book reviews

Reposted: A review of Escape From Lecumberri by Dwight Worker

This is a review I wrote of Dwight Worker’s book, Escape from Lecumberri. It appeared on my original blog on December 18, 2018.

I have to admit, I love a good prison story.  That’s why I watch a lot of documentaries about prisons on Netflix and iTunes.  In fact, it was after I saw an episode of Locked Up Abroad that I became familiar with Dwight Worker’s story of his time at Mexico’s infamous Lecumberri Prison.  Worker, who was interviewed for the show and had a dramatized account of his escape shown on the National Geographic produced series, mentioned that he had written a book about his experiences.  I was so curious after seeing the short version on Locked Up Abroad, I downloaded the most recent printing from Amazon.com.

Worker’s book, Escape from Lecumberri, co-written by his ex wife, Barbara Wilde, was originally published in the 1970s.  In 1980, a made for TV movie was released.  I was around in 1980, but I’m pretty sure the movie would have been airing past my bedtime.  Now that I’ve read Worker’s book, I wonder about the made for TV movie, which is a relic from the days when people watched TV every evening.  Maybe someone’s put it on YouTube.  

Lecumberri Prison no longer exists.  Only two people ever escaped from the so-called “Black Palace”– Dwight Worker on December 17, 1975 and Pancho Villa in 1912.  It’s a coincidence that I finished reading Worker’s book on the 43rd anniversary of his daring escape.

Who is Dwight Worker and how did he wind up “banged up” abroad?

The 1970s were a rather freewheeling time for a lot of people.  Many people were enjoying “free love” and sex, as well as better living through chemistry.  Dwight Worker was a young man in 1973 who enjoyed hiking in South and Central America.  He also enjoyed cocaine.  In November 1973, Worker went to Peru and acquired a large amount of cocaine, which he’d intended to bring back with him to the United States.  He planned to sell the cocaine, which would pay for the trip, a new camera, and give him an extra $10,000. 

Worker’s travel plans unexpectedly took him through Mexico City, which he admits made him feel uneasy.  He thought he had a foolproof plan, though, by claiming that he’d been badly injured during his hiking expedition.  Worker wore a fake plaster cast on his upper body, under which he put the drugs.  He told people that he’d broken his shoulder after a fall while mountain climbing.  He even offered a fake x-ray and newspaper clipping about the accident as “proof”.  

In the 1970s, Mexico and other countries south of the United States’ border, were being pressured by the Nixon administration to crack down on drug smugglers who were bringing illegal substances over the border.  For all of his moxie, Dwight Worker was not well-versed in the best ways to smuggle drugs without being caught.  Sure enough, as Worker passed through Mexican customs, he was nabbed by the authorities.  The officials tore off his cast and quickly discovered the 800 grams of cocaine Worker had hidden within it.

Worker was then hauled off to jail, where he was beaten and repeatedly shocked with cattle prods until he signed a confession.  Then, without ever having seen a judge or spoken to a lawyer, Worker was sentenced to seven years at Lecumberri Prison, aka the “Black Palace”, on the outskirts of Mexico City.  

What was prison like?

In 1973, Dwight Worker was still a young, tough, physically strong man.  Nevertheless, his prison experience at the Black Palace was brutal.  Worker explains that the prison was divided into “dorms”, each of which was governed by a mayor.  Prisoners were expected to pay rent for their cells and do forced labor.  Worker describes a sort of hazing he and other prisoners went through called “fajinas“.  I looked up the word, which was not one I learned during my six years of Spanish classes.  It means “jobs” or “tasks”.  But Worker had to perform “fajinas” while duck walking, as fast as he could muster.  To fail meant being beaten.  And the Mexicans in the prison hated “gringos“, and Americans in particular.  Worker writes that the Mexicans blamed Americans for taking Texas and California from Mexico.

Aside from the forced labor, Worker was subjected to many beatings, solitary confinement, and absolutely deplorable living conditions among vermin and unsanitary toilet facilities.  Although he did receive some medical treatment, it seemed to be mostly given to those who would die without it.  Worker went to the hospital a couple of times for life threatening injuries, but then he’d be returned to the violent dorms.

Worker had limited contact with his family.  He spoke to his parents on the phone a couple of times and warned them not to spend thousands on a shady Mexican lawyer.  His parents, who had already lost one son to premature death, were good, law abiding people.  One of Worker’s other brothers admitted that if Worker weren’t his brother, he would be fine with letting him rot in prison.  But… as many people discover, when it’s your friend or loved one who is locked up, previously hard-assed attitudes about law and order tend to soften.

How did Worker escape?

About six months into his sentence, which Worker had been assured would not be reduced or forgiven, Worker was visited by an old friend who brought a young American woman named Barbara Chilcoate with her.  The two became friendly and romance bloomed.  They traded letters, and eventually decided to get married.  By July 1975, Chilcoate, who had a young daughter named Gabrielle, decided that she would marry Worker and help him escape prison.

As brutal as Lecumberri Prison was, prisoners were allowed a few simple pleasures that are not common in today’s prison environment.  One thing they were allowed was visitors, including conjugal visits with spouses.  Barbara Chilcoate and Gabrielle visited Worker frequently.  The guards were brutal, but they weren’t especially thorough when they searched visitors for contraband.  Worker and Chilcoate came up with a plan to dress Worker in drag, where he would blend in with all of the other women who visited the prison to see their men.

The couple came up with ingenious ways to smuggle in makeup, clothing, and a wig.  Chilcoate had to tutor Worker on how to apply makeup, which he would then have to scrub from his face.  Given that not all of the cells had running water, that was quite a challenge.  They also had to come up with authentic looking “passes” which could be slipped past the guards.  With luck, cunning, and planning, Worker was able to escape Mexico and is now the second, and last, person who would ever break out of Lecumberri Prison, which closed in 1976.  Since 1980, the building has been used as the General National Archive.  It is one of the oldest national archives in the Americas.

My thoughts

At the beginning of this book, Worker explains that it had been out of print for some time.  Worker now teaches college and had given no thought to reissuing his book until he noticed a couple of his students bringing old copies to class for him to autograph.  He realized that a lot of people were interested in his story and old copies of the book were hard to find, very expensive, and falling apart.  So, he graciously updated his book and put it on Amazon for the curious to download.

I was a little confused when Worker’s side of the story and his ex wife’s side was presented.  I don’t remember their being an indication that the viewpoint had changed, so it took me a minute to realize that I wasn’t reading Worker’s perspective.  It had changed to his ex wife’s perspective.  A warning would have been helpful.

I’m glad Worker reissued his book.  I found it hard to put down.  Worker is a talented writer with a gift for storytelling.  I’m glad I read the updated version, since Worker was able to update his life since the book was published.  He and Barbara eventually divorced, though they did have a son together.  They remain friends.  And though Worker was understandably bitter about having been tortured in a Mexican prison when his book was first published, he claims that his attitude toward Mexico has softened.  He wishes the country and its people well.  Naturally, Worker also speaks fluent Spanish.

Dwight Worker did break the law.  He was caught, and rightfully punished.  While I think prison was an appropriate punishment for trying to smuggle cocaine, I can see why Worker would decide to escape.  He was being subjected to inhumane conditions and was not treated with fairness or due process.  Because he was an American, his conditions were even worse than those of other prisoners.  It wasn’t long before Worker learned to claim he was Canadian, Australian, or British.  Why?  Because the governments of those countries would not tolerate their citizens being tortured or beaten in a Mexican prison.  There would be sanctions.  Also, those countries did not “steal” any Mexican territories, as the United States did.

I found Escape from Lecumberri a fascinating read.  It’s fast paced, engaging, and riveting.  I would definitely recommend it to those who, like me, love a good prison story.  I give it five stars out of five.

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