Editorial note: this is the latest in a series of articles related to the KSL Podcast, “Hope In Darkness.” Find all of our episodes and coverage here.
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — How does a kid from Utah, fresh off his mission, survive prison life? If you’re Josh Holt, the answer is: Make friends with your fellow inmates.
Episode 7 of “Hope In Darkness: the Josh Holt Story” focuses on prison life in Venezuela and what it takes to stay alive behind bars.
Nothing like the movies: Josh Holt on prison life
Whatever prison movie you’re picturing as the basis of your knowledge about life on the inside, forget it. The real thing is a completely different experience, according to Holt, who spent 23 months at El Helicoide, a prison run by Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, or the SEBIN.
He spent the first six weeks or so of that imprisonment in solitary confinement, in a cell just barely bigger than a twin-sized bed, with no windows, sleeping on the floor. After a couple of weeks, prison officials started allowing Josh Holt out of his cell for short stints. They would walk him past his wife’s cell, where she would provide him with two-liter bottles of water to bathe himself.
The daily visits allowed Thamy Holt to pass notes to her husband, hidden under the label of the bottle. Josh Holt could sneak the note out while bathing, then smuggle another note back to her when he returned the bottle.
In this way, over the course of multiple days, they managed to discuss legal strategy and agree to accept the help of a lawyer who worked with political prisoners — people in prison because they spoke out against the Venezuelan government.
The right to an attorney
But agreeing to work with the lawyer was easier than actually working with her. Inmates at El Helicoide were supposed to get an hour with their attorneys, twice a week. But depending on circumstances in the country or in the prison, those visits might be delayed — and no matter what time they started, they ended at the same time.
“There’s times where they wouldn’t allow the lawyers to come up until 10:50, so you’d have ten minutes to meet with your lawyer,” Josh Holt said.
The attorney, who worked for a human-rights organization, kept the pressure on. Eventually, she prevailed, and the Holts got their time with her.
“We were talking with her quite a bit at the very beginning, and she just always seemed very positive about everything that was happening,” Josh Holt recalled.
The Holts initially were being held on a 45-day hold, ordered by the judge overseeing their case. Josh Holt believed, in part because of his attorney’s optimism, that it was a mere formality — that there wasn’t enough evidence to continue the case past that, and he and Thamy would be freed as soon as they got their hearing.
But that hearing got canceled. Without meeting with them, the judge decided there was enough evidence to continue the case and send it on to a pretrial.
“That was a really hard day for me,” he said. “I honestly thought that we were going to get our freedom.”
At about that same time in late summer 2016, Josh Holt’s stay in solitary confinement finally came to an end. Political prisoners inside El Helicoide had heard about “the Gringo” being held nearby and lobbied prison officials to move him to the general population. One of those political prisoners would become his new roommate. His name was Franklin Hernández.
“One thing that was really nice, was he was someone who was fluent in not only Spanish but English as well. So I was able to communicate back and forth,” Holt said.
The second inmate in the cell was called Colombia, who was accused of the 2014 murder of a Venezuelan lawmaker, Robert Serra. Colombia’s real name was Leiver Padilla.
“And you kept walking and passed the big column that went through the center of the room. There was another twin-sized bed, and the person that was on that bed goes by the name ‘Buñuelo,'” Holt said.
Buñuelo was a nickname, roughly translating to “The Donut.” A buñuelo is a type of fried dough fritter, popular in Latin America. His real name was Claudio Giovanni Jimenez Gomez. Holt put his belongings on the floor next to Buñuelo’s bed, where he was going to be sleeping.
“And that’s when I found out that he was one of the top ten most deadliest people in Venezuela. And I’m sleeping maybe a foot away from him,” Holt said.
Life lessons from Venezuela’s most wanted
Buñuelo arrived at El Helicoide a few months before the Holts, accused of killing a police officer with a grenade, threatening others, then holding a woman and her daughter hostage to avoid arrest.
“[He] spent a lot of his time on the phone. And so I didn’t really communicate with him. And I kind of got a vibe from him at the very beginning that he was kind of on edge,” Holt said.
Cellphones were considered contraband items at El Helicoide, but as Holt would soon learn, many inmates found ways to smuggle them in.
Soon, Holt determined Buñuelo’s standoffishness had less to do with a dislike of his new cellmate than that he was trying to figure Holt out. Could he be trusted? Was he a snitch? The longer he was there, the more Buñuelo opened up.
Buñuelo was curious about Josh Holt and how he came to be in prison. He started asking questions. Why was he arrested? What was he doing in Venezuela? How did he learn Spanish?
Holt told his new cellmate about his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the Spanish-speaking community of Everett, Wash.
“I told him about when you get out into the mission field, after you get done with the MTC, the Missionary Training Center, and you’re out in the field now … and you have a person that’s there with you. And that person, we normally call our ‘dad’ because he teaches us things. And he normally calls us their ‘son.’ And so I just remember, he looked at me and he put his hands on my shoulder, and he said, ‘Well, then, you’ll be my son, and I’ll be your dad, and I’ll teach you everything there is to know here in prison,'” Holt said.
Lesson one: how to read the prison guards.
Inmates at El Helicoide could get away with a lot if they understood when the guards were more likely to turn a blind eye. Similarly, they were more likely to keep the items they smuggled in when the guards were happy.
“You had to know what was going on with them to know whether or not they were going to come in and raid your cell,” Holt said.
“We had little, but to us it was gold,” Thamy Holt said.
Lesson two: don’t be stingy.
“He said, ‘What do you do when someone comes up to you and asks you for a roll of toilet paper?’ And I said, ‘Well, I just tear some off and give him some toilet paper.’ And he says, ‘No, they’ll kill you.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, they’ll kill me?’ He says, ‘Well, how do you know how much toilet paper they need to wipe themselves?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, but it’s my toilet paper, and so I’m only going to give them as much as I wanna give them.’ He goes, ‘Well, that’s one of those things that you have to fight over. Do you want friendship and people that’ll be on your side, or would you rather fight with people because you don’t want to give them toilet paper?'”
Lesson three: get a side hustle.
Everything at El Helicoide cost the inmates something, from food and water to the ride to the courthouse for a hearing.
“People would sell cigarettes and different types of things. And while you’re there in prison, you had to figure out a way to make your own money,” Holt said.
Josh and Thamy Holt noticed that the inmates in the prison frequently bought and smoked cigarettes. But they realized no one sold lighters, as they noticed their cellmates continually asking for a light.
“So I said, ‘What the heck, I’m going to start selling lighters then!’ And that’s what I did. I started selling lighters, and I sold a couple of boxes of them,” Josh Holt said. “It wasn’t really enough to go out and buy something, but it was enough to cover the water that I had to buy in order to drink.”
A cellphone of their own
Josh Holt said his cellmates were generous with their things, allowing him to borrow their cellphones periodically to connect with his family in the United States. But he felt bad about having to borrow their things and looked for a way to get a phone of his own plus one for Thamy, too. He asked his parents to get money to Thamy’s mother to purchase phones and sneak them into the prison.
Just a short distance away from Josh Holt in another part of the prison, Thamy Holt shared her cell with 32 other women.
“My mom saved us throughout that time,” Thamy Holt said through a translator. “She did a lot of things for Josh and me. I’m sure Josh’s mom would have done the same; the difference is that she was thousands of kilometers away.”
Maria, Thamy’s mother, quickly figured out that in order to truly help her daughter and son-in-law, she needed to befriend the guards.
“When visitors come into the jail, they have to go through this little line, and they basically take everything from you and they look at everything that you have. But they’re not always 100 percent thorough in what they’re looking for,” Josh Holt said. “When she first started coming, she finally realized how the process was, and she realized she had to butter them up.”
Fortunately, Maria had an ace in the hole: she was a terrific cook, as Thamy Holt noted through a translator.
“She always made cakes. She is a pastry chef,” Thamy Holt said. “She’d arrive: ‘A cake for you, for you, for you,’ and she’d give a little piece of cake to whomever, with the condition that they didn’t search her and what she brought in our shopping cart.”
In this way, Maria was able to bring food to the prison for Josh and Thamy Holt, and occasionally, items considered contraband. Josh Holt’s parents sent her money to cover their needs. Eventually, she was able to smuggle in two cellphones.
“Mom used her pants. She used her leggings under her pants and she placed — not internally, no — but in the division between her legs, Mom would place the phone there,” Thamy Holt said through a translator. “She tried to walk more softly and delicately because the walk was hard on her muscles, but that’s how she passed the phones inside.”
Reunited, a hundred feet apart
The smuggled cellphones allowed Josh Holt the chance to communicate daily with his parents from prison. The phones also gave him the opportunity to more regularly communicate with his wife without having to sneak notes inside two-liter bottle labels.
Their relationship got another boost, in a sense, from one of Thamy Holt’s cellmates.
“She was my first friend,” Thamy Holt said through a translator. “I had an obligation to get along well with her because — first, she was a murderer. She had killed a functionary of a SEBIN.”
The woman, like many El Helicoide inmates, was stripped of her rights in prison and subjected to abuse and torture.
“They treated her terribly the first seven months. They raped her, the guards raped her. They beat her. They didn’t give her food. She was like a piñata. They never took her to court,” Thamy Holt said.
But over time, that woman began having an affair with a prison official, which resulted in better treatment, not just for herself, but her fellow inmates in Thamy Holt’s cell. They were treated better and received more privileges.
“Thanks to that relationship, [the prison official] was very permissive,” Thamy Holt said. “That made our life marvelous.”
The women in Thamy Holt’s cell obtained DVD players, TVs, small portable cookstoves and even a fridge, as a result of that relationship. Additionally, the guards stopped raiding the women’s cell, meaning it was much less likely the items they obtained could be confiscated.
Eventually, this led to more freedoms for Josh in addition to Thamy. The woman having the affair with the prison official negotiated for Thamy and Josh Holt to get more visitation time with each other.
“Then, I could leave two times a week. The visits on Wednesdays were from one to three in the afternoon. And on Saturdays, they were from 11 to 5 in the afternoon,” Thamy Holt said.
Although nicer, it wasn’t exactly the honeymoon period they envisioned when Josh Holt flew to Venezuela to get married.
Hope In Darkness releases new episodes weekly on Wednesdays. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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