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Surviving Panamanian Prison

Back in Cárcel Modelo, Ridgeway was assigned to a cell with eight other men, all of them Panamanian, none of them friendly. He supposed it was better than the cell across the aisle, which housed the real bad guys—murderers and rapists and lifers, the men who ran the prison, led by a felon named Magellón.

"It was horrible," he later told Rolling Stone. "I saw five people get killed. . . . And the whole time I was there, I was facing the specter of Isla de Coiba, the prison island. Guys who'd been there told horror stories about it: guys with no hands telling you about how they made you work in the swamp with alligators. Every week guards would read a list of names, and everybody on the list had to go to Coiba. Men would break down and cry when they heard their names read. It was a nightmare."

Shortly after his arrival, Ridgeway's stuff sack was stolen. Locked in a cell all day, he was pretty sure that his cellmates were to blame. But there were seven of them and only one of him. He had to stand up for himself. He zeroed in on the cell's ringleader and decided to strike.

Leaping from his bunk, he rushed the ringleader. The other six piled on. After the guards finally peeled back the brawlers, the ringleader hissed, "Once you go to sleep, you're dead."

But later that night Ridgeway heard a voice calling from outside his cell.

"Gringo."

It was Magellón.

"He said what I did took balls," recalls Ridgeway. Magellón whistled to the guards. "I want the gringo in my cell." Ridgeway was transferred, and never harassed again.

He and Candy were released about a month later, only after the schooner's owner turned himself in to the Panamanian authorities. Ridgeway, deeply shaken by the ordeal, decided to alter his life's trajectory. So while Candy thumbed her way south, he enrolled at the University of Lima to study writing, and within a semester, his diploma arrived from Hawaii.

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