By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
“It’s hell on earth.”
That is the description of Jason Puracal’s living conditions according to his younger sister, Janis Puracal, after her most recent visit with her brother in a Nicaraguan prison. Puracal, a Tacoma native, was accused of a crime and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Puracal’s family is trying to work with public and private agencies to have him released to his wife and young son.
La Modela, the prison where he is held, is right outside Managua, near the town where Puracal lived with his wife and young son. The prison, as Janis Puracal describes, is run down and unsanitary for the inmates.
“Everything is concrete — the walls, the benches,” she said. “There are eight inmates to a 12 by 15 cell.”
“There is nothing redeeming about the place.”
There is no drinkable water available unless you purchase it from the prison store, and the store is often out of supplies. The prison is overcrowded, which creates tension and animosity to an already dangerous population, as many know they will never leave.
Janis Puracal noticed her brother’s gaunt cheeks and dark circles around his eyes. She gathers that the 5’10”, 180-pound healthy older brother she once knew is withering away. He has lost between 30 and 40 pounds since he was thrown in jail, and he suffered severe burns on his legs after he tried to boil water on a makeshift stove.
The family is of East Indian descent. Puracal’s father is from Malaysia and his mother is from Singapore.
Puracal, 34, is the oldest of three children. He attended Foss High School and studied at the University of Washington. After graduating, he joined the Peace Corps. He went to Nicaragua in 2002, where he fell in love with a woman, and the two married. His wife is attending law school in Nicaragua. The couple has a 5-year-old son with Down’s syndrome. According to Janis Puracal, her nephew does not understand why his dad is gone, but he misses him.
In Nicaragua, Puracal focused on a real estate career and linked up with the local Re/Max there. He appeared on an HGTV episode of International House Hunters. The show features the purchase of rental homes by ex-pats in foreign countries. Puracal served as a knowledgeable real estate agent for the episode.
The police claim that Puracal took part in a drug trafficking and money laundering scheme and used the ReMax agency as a front for the crime. There is scant evidence tying Puracal to any money laundering.
There were no bank records and no eyewitness testimony or evidence of money changing hands. In addition, nine other people were charged in the criminal activity, yet none of them knew Puracal.
Due to close quarters in the prison, Puracal slept on the concrete floor until he was able to create a makeshift bed. The detained are a mix of murderers and rapists. Janis Puracal notes that a stabbing in the inmate population led to a death just one week before her visit.
The family is allowed to give Puracal food and water. Puracal is not offered refrigeration, so the family provides him with granola, beef jerky, and dried fruit. The prison gives the inmates rice and beans twice a day. Janis Puracal says that the food is filled with bicarbonate, which has contributed to Puracal developing a serious stomach ailment. Janis Puracal explained that the family works with people it trusts in Nicaragua to supply food to Puracal on a weekly basis. However, he must fend off the other starving inmates that are living under the same conditions. The family is also allowed to visit with Puracal for brief periods; they can hug him, talk to him. They can also attempt to keep his spirits up with letters, e-mails, and pictures.
They are personally funding efforts to lobby Capitol Hill and the Nicaraguan government to release Puracal. These efforts are depleting the family’s resources, but they remain hopeful for Puracal’s release.
The legal effort to free Jason
The California Innocence Project agreed to take on Puracal’s case. The Project reviews more than 2,000 cases a year and handles only 10. Puracal’s was one of them. In addition to the California Innocence Project’s work, there is an appeal of the court case where Puracal was convicted. However, the likelihood that the case will be overturned on appeal appears slim, considering the state of the judiciary in the area.
“We’re concerned about the status of the case,” said Jared Genser, a Washington, D.C., human rights attorney for nonprofit Freedom Now.
Genser is involved in the international legalities of Puracal’s case.
“The judiciary is neither independent nor impartial and subject to political manipulation,” Genser said. “We don’t know whether Puracal will be given a fair shake in the process.”
There has been a petition filed with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The UN body will render a decision to determine whether the Nicaraguan government violated international law. Genser indicated that a ruling should occur in May. It is believed that the government of Nicaragua will feel pressure to comply with the ruling.
Also, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture will make an inquiry to the government of Nicaragua concerning the conditions of La Modela. Genser believes that withholding edible food and potable water from Puracal is slowly starving him to death.
“Such treatment amounts to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, if not torture, under international law,” said Genser.
More to be done
Eric Volz understands Puracal’s suffering. Volz was held in the same prison for a crime he did not commit. In Volz’s case, he was accused of murder, although he was nowhere near the scene and had multiple individuals that could testify on his behalf. Despite the lack of evidence, Volz was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He spent 14 months in prison and was released after supporters pressured the local government for his release.
“The prison where Puracal is being held is a whole subworld,” explained Volz. “The challenging thing [in] being American is interacting with people that you do not identify with. It’s really a challenge,” said Volz. “If Spanish is not your native language, it could make it hard.”
Volz was released due in part to a vigorous private lobbying effort.
“Ultimately, you have to have people lobbying in the country for success,” said Volz. As in his case, Volz believes keeping the pressure on the government is key to Puracal’s release.
Knowing the frustration and despair of what Puracal is going through, Volz shed light on what kept him going. “Prison is really the farthest of loneliness and despair. Your mind can cave in on yourself.” said Volz. “I know that for me, the biggest source of strength and hope was that there was a movement to free me. I heard from the [American] embassy and received letters from supporters.”
Volz wrote the book “Gringo Nightmare,” which documented being framed for a murder he did not commit and his struggle for freedom. Volz now runs the David House Agency, an international crisis agency, which helps in assisting individuals wrongfully detained in foreign countries.
“The first step is to have the Nicaraguan government feel the pressure, not only from Puracal’s country (the United States), but the international community,” explained Volz of the strategy. “Primarily, and most recently, we are putting the case on the radar of some of the experts of wrongful conviction.”
The U.S. Embassy has visited Puracal, but Volz believes more needs to be done.
“It’s not easy to call out the Nicaraguan government in this case,” explained Volz. “There are a number of bilateral issues in this case. To tell them that police have made a mistake can create tension.”
“The U.S. has not done enough and it’s really concerning.”
A petition on Change.org was started to demand Puracal’s release from prison. More than 84,000 people have signed the petition since it was posted on April 4 of this year. You can sign the online petition requesting Puracal’s release at www.change.org/petitions/free-jason-puracal-an-innocent-american-in-nicaraguan-prison. (end)
For more information on Jason Puracal, please visit www.freejasonp.com.
Jason Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.