If you just tuned in to Dwight Workers incredible tale on Locked Up Abroad: Black Palace of Horrors, I’m sure you have questions. You can live-tweet with him during the 10P EST premiere on Twitter at @lockedupabroad. But in case you miss him there, we checked in with Dwight to get answers and see what life is like for him today and here’s what he had to say:
Besides the required work detail, how did you pass the time in prison? Did you pick up any new hobbies?
Daily I exercised, ran, pumped iron, and boxed. There was a surprisingly good floating library of books among the English-speaking prisoners. I read perhaps 500 books while I was there. Every night after lockup, I looked forward to Russian classics, novels, histories, Solzhenitsyn. I studied Spanish. I learned basic electricity. For a while, I celled with a skilled Argentine bank robber. He taught me how to take things apart, repair them, and put them back together. I learned how to improvise from limited materials to make useful things that I needed. One of the skills he taught me that I never used illegally was how to pick locks!
Were you able to make any friends in prison? Do you still keep in touch with them?
Yes. At this time, I am in contact with only one former prisoner. He is a very talented, and funny, electrical engineer. I had a sense that a number of the US prisoners in Mexico were already planning on going back into the ‘business’ when they got out. I would avoid them. There are a few former prisoners whom I would not mind seeing again, but I surmise that we do not make enough effort to find each other and re-establish contact.
I thought many of the North American prisoners lacked a strength of character. They were weak and would betray me when it served their purposes. But what should I have expected from a bunch of drug users/addicts? They reflected flaws that I too had.
Did you ever hear of the prison guards & prisoners reactions after your escape?
They arrested up to 15 prison guards for having accepted immense bribes from me that we never paid. I saw pictures of their battered faces in the Mexico City newspapers. Other prisoners told me that the prison was in an uproar for several days. The entire prison populace had to stand in ‘lista’ for several hours while they searched the entire prison for me, or my body. After all, it was the first escape from Lecumberri since 1910. Many prisoners sent me letters of congratulations. They thought it was a cool ‘F*ck you’ to the whole system. But not so surprisingly, a few American prisoners expressed jealousy and resentment at my escape. They had been waiting for the great ‘deportation in the sky’, which I had been saying would never come. I had told them that the only way anyone would leave this prison was to do their time, escape, or in a box. And I had proved my point.
What went through your mind as you and Barbara awaited your wedding ceremony in prison, on the day of your planned escape?
Almost complete terror. The intensity of the moment was almost too much for us. The guards thought that the expressions on our faces, our tears, were our emotions on our wedding day. For me, the real possibility that I would never see her again, and for her, that her new husband would be dead in two hours. We honestly realized viscerally for the first time that we had never made any plans for ‘if I got caught’ because there were no plans to be made. They would simply kill me.
What happened when you crossed the Mexico–Arizona border? Were you questioned or required to show a U.S. passport?
I told the US Customs agent that I had been robbed of my wallet and all ID’s while in Mexico. He replied that it happened all the time. He asked me a some questions and could see that I was native-born to the US. Then he let me enter. Immediately, in front of him, I got down on my knees and kissed the cool Arizona sand on that Christmas Eve night at the isolated desert crossing in Sonoita. I was crying. I recall the agent looking very strangely at me.
I then telephoned my parents. My dad answered. He had heard that I was missing, but the embassy had told him that the prison officials were ‘still looking for my body’. What a nice Christmas present I had given my family. When I told my father that I was calling from just 50 yards north of the border, my dad shouted “RUN SON RUN OR THEY’LL GET YOU!” Then he said he’d be right down with my brother and their guns to bring me safely back. He did say that. I laugh to this day at the thought of it.
What were your first few weeks back in the States like?
Euphoria. Madly in love and adoring of my wife (still today). Every little thing that we take for granted I appreciated. But I had the reality of finding a job, starting a career, and providing for my wife and daughter. Within in a month I was working full-time, and beginning to take classes in computer programming.
Has Rene ever tried to contact you? Do you know if he was aware of your arrest and imprisonment?
No. I never heard from him. I would be ashamed and embarrassed. Everything ended in abject failure. They found his phone # in my address book. I have no idea how that ended up. I have never returned to Peru since then either.
Looking back, would you have done anything different?
I would not have done it! I would not have gotten addicted to cocaine. I would have stuck with outdoors adventures, hiking, climbing, sailing, — real things — to get my kicks. But the paradox of life is that we only live it going forward and understand it looking back, if at all.
Do you openly share your story with people?
No no no. I have done 2 interviews about the escape since 1977. I have rejected a 100 more. And I regret doing one of those interviews.
What advice would you give someone who is considering drug trafficking for fast cash or to satisfy a drug habit?
Obviously, DON’T DO IT. From everything we have read, this border is so exponentially more violent than in the casual hippie days of the late 60’s/early 70’s. Think of it: 50,000+ deaths in Mexico since 2006. That number is as incredible as it is appalling. All of this just to satisfy North America’s drug addictions.
I feel the drug problem is primarily a medical problem, rather than law enforcement. The 38 years and counting ‘war on drugs’ is an abject failure, and until we work at demand reduction and why is it that our society is so addicted, we have no chance at reducing the social costs of drug addiction.
You mentioned that Mexico has never requested your extradition…. so are you legally allowed to travel into Mexico?
The way I broke out of prison violated no Mexican laws. It is NOT illegal to escape from prison in Mexico if you 1. do not commit violence against people and 2. do not destroy state property. But ‘la ley de fuga’ applies, ‘the law of escape’. If they catch you, they kill you.
I could not legally travel to Mexico until after my sentence had ‘expired’. I was on my own ‘early release’ program. So, technically, I could have returned to Mexico sometime in the 80’s. But really, if they caught me, they could do what they want.
And if yes, have you ever gone back since your escape from prison?
Yes, I mountain-climbed Popocatepetl, Ixtachuhutal, and Orizaba. And in 2001, my son and I rode our bicycles across northern Mexico.
How’s Barbara doing?
Well. She lives in France, where she has a business at frenchgardening.com She writes of food and gardening.
What’s life like for you now?
Fine. I am in good health. I recently retired from teaching at Indiana University. I have an organic farm, lots of animals, fruit trees, and crops. I enjoy producing food, writing, and in the winters, taking long international bicycle trips.