The Prison Pageant

Nov 04, 2013 at 11:21 AM ET

“Keep your butt cheek tense,” the girl says. She’s trying to cover up an ex-boyfriend’s name on Yurany’s ass with makeup. Yurany makes the finishing adjustments to her “fantasy” outfit and takes another test pass across the stage. “You’re not in your boots anymore,” scolds the choreographer, ordering Yurany to repeat the drill. Walk, wave and smile. This time “like a queen.” The boots he’s referring to are the ones Yurany wore during her time as a Colombian guerilla fighter before she was arrested and sent here, to Bogota’s Buen Pastor (the Good Shepard) prison. Yurany is tall, and like many from the Colombian countryside, she is soft-spoken. He hair is long and dyed blond. She is competing in Colombia’s largest prison beauty contest. Among her competition for the crown are drug traffickers and thieves. She is a kidnapper. Sitting in a chair in the nearby beauty salon, Danelly, 19, is being made up by one of Bogota’s top stylists. An Afro-Colombian, Danelly is from Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port and a major exit point for cocaine in to the Pacific Ocean. “A good queen needs a good attitude,” she says as her makeup is applied. “Also respect and charisma.” Danelly has served six months of her prison sentence so far, and when she gets out in six years time she wants to go to university. Located in northwest Bogota, the Good Shepherd holds among its 2,000 inmates some of Colombia’s most dangerous women—or at least the ones who have been caught. It is divided in to eight gray cellblocks, with specialized areas for FARC rebels and those awaiting extradition. Corrupt politicians and public officials are kept separate from everyone. The pageant is held in the open-air communal zone, mockingly referred to as “93 Park,” the name of Bogota’s swankiest restaurant zone. The festivities are in honor of the Virgin of Mercedes, the patron saint of prisoners. Usually the contest is the culmination of a week of activities, with sporting and cultural events. But this year the prison authorities cut short the fun. “Bad behavior,” one prison official tells me. “A few escape attempts.” Every year rebels from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) enter their own candidate in the beauty contest. Ideologically rigid and disciplined, the guerrillas stand out among the prison population consisting mostly of common criminals. This year, the FARC’s candidate is Yurany. Yurany parted ways with the guerrillas back in 2009. She fled to an army base, and as she was formally renouncing the guerrillas, a local prosecutor demanded to talk to her. During the interrogation, she explained how she was ordered by guerrilla commanders to look after an 83-year-old hostage. The prosecutor insisted all benefits of her voluntary surrender be rescinded and she be tried for kidnapping. She was sentenced to 37 years. Like all prisons, a heavy sense of misery, self-pity and bad luck hangs over the Good Shepherd. But the day of beauty pageant, the prison resembles a boisterous girls school. Prisoners shout and cheer for their candidate, and most all believe the event is the highlight of the year, a brief moment to forget the daily misery of life behind bars. The women spend nearly a month making their costumes, often staying up all night to get them finished, and some of Bogota’s top stylists donate their time to help the women get prepared. “I see it as giving back,” says Alfonso Llano, a stylist. “I think if we all did small gestures, doing events like these, the country would be much better off.” Adding to the carnival atmosphere, popular musical guests are invited. Jhonny Rivera, one of Colombia’s biggest singers, is in attendance this year, and he delivers a crowd favorite, “I Lost My Freedom.” Immediately hundreds of women join him in the anthem of life behind bars: “I lost my freedom / Today I feel so alone / Alone in my prison.” The women cry as they sing at the top of their voices. The winner is to be decided by a panel of local celebrities—a mix of actors and pop stars. The question-and-answer session proves to be decisive. Angie Rios is asked what will be the first thing she does once she gets out of prison. “The first thing I will do once I get back my freedom is to look for my son and parents to share time with them, to get back time we lost.” So far, so good. But then she overreaches. “I will also look for every child of every one of you,” she says. The audience explodes in cackles, booing at the pandering. Yurany is up next. “What is the formula for peace in Colombia?” she’s asked. “The formula is to have tolerance and respect for others. We have to respect everyone so tomorrow we won’t have to bury our loved ones.” People cheer. The winner is announced, and last year’s winner ascends the stage and places a crown on Tatiana’s head. Prison guards step forward and hug her. Yurany smiles politely and claps, as tears roll down Tatiana’s cheeks. “I have always liked modeling, beauty pageants, and now far more beauty pageants,” Tatiana says, cradling a bouquet of flowers. As dusk sets in, the Tatiana is carried on the inmates’ shoulders as they shout, “We’ve got the winner! We’ve got the winner!” The noise begins to settle and the crowd at 93 Park disperses. Guards usher the women back to the gloomy corridors that lead back to the cells. As the final straggler passes through the cellblock gates, the door slams shut. WANT TO WATCH MORE? check out some of our other videos: “Americans Are Fat, Ignorant and Like Guns”: South Africa’s comic trio riff on culture and race The Tower of David: Inside the worlds tallest slum The First Family of Weed: This stoner family makes way more money than you do Beach Boys: Objects of Desire: We go inside a very unusual sex trade