Saturday, June 18, 2011

Going to Prison

Was it the coca tea I frequently drink?  Was it the bootleg copies of The King's Speech and Julie and Julia that Willa and I bought around town?  Was it the fact I walked through the street spitting mandarin orange seeds onto the ground and, just yesterday, snuck in a few shots from the roof of the Santa Teresa convent (even though I was supposed to pay to take pictures on our tour)?  Nope. None of the above got me to prison. (FYI: coca tea and coca products that are not drugs are legal, Bolivian copyright laws only protect Bolivian work, seeds are just about the most innocuous thing you'll see on the ground here, and, as far the the convent picture-taking episode goes, well....I figure the nuns don't own the skyline)

An "illegal" picture
My two trips to prison this week were actually voluntary, part of the new work I'm trying out since I stopped working with the little kids.  So far, I like being at the prison more the than I liked being at Pedacito, despite the fact that there's not much to like about the prisons themselves. 

When you go to prison (involuntarily) in Bolivia, of some things you get far less than in the States, and of some things you get far more.  Let's start with the semi-positive: while in prison you get more time with your family and, in some senses, more freedom within the prison walls.  More time with your family, though, doesn't necessarily mean more visiting can mean that your children live with you because there is no real foster care system in Bolivia and you lack family that take on the role of caregiver. Your children go to school during the day, and come back to the prison in the afternoon.  You all live together in a cell. As far as more freedom is concerned, I suppose I can't make detailed comparisons since I've never visited a U.S. prison, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't looke like a market inside and that, essentially, is what the patio of the women's prison looked like.  People congregated around plastic tables and chairs, children wandered around, and women sold things from alcoves and stands around the patio.  Someone was even walking around with a pan of bread...I could have bought myself a snack!  No one, from what I could see, was "behind bars"--that concept didn't even seem to exist.

Far less positive is the overcrowding, the long waits (usually two years) for trials, the sentences that don't fit the crimes, and the fact that prisoners are entitled to nothing, not even a bed or a cell.  That's right.  If you don't want to sleep on a mattress in the central patio, you have to pay.  You have to pay for everything, in fact, including food, medicine, and other basics like toilet paper.  You are given a stipend of about 6 Bolivianos/day, but 6 Bolivianos is less than a dollar. So how to do you make money?  Well...if you're a woman, you can do laundry (people actually drop their laundry off at the prison), knit things, make crafts.  If you're a man you can do craft things too, but you can also make furniture (which someone will haul out to the plaza in front of the prison so that people can browse and buy) or grills.

It's a different system, to say the least.  My role in it on Tuesday was as part of a group that went to one of the men's prisons to weigh/measure young children and give out milk and vitamins.  In the end, Hermana Maria Angeles, the nun in charge of prison ministry for the archdiocese, put me to work handing out used, donated shoes.  I was under strict orders, though, to not give out shoes unless a child had tried them on and unless they fit.  This proved harder than I thought it would be because fathers and children alike wanted whatever shoes they could get, even if a kid's toe was at the end of the shoe. It was difficult to say "no" a lot but, since every child I met had some kind of shoes on their feet already, I do think it was better to give the shoes to kids who would find them comfortable, at least for a little while.

Today, I didn't do much at the prison.  I just went for mass and met some of the women.  Mass was in the patio and it was nearly impossible to hear because the priest had no microphone, but a number of women showed up and took at seat on the plastic chairs (advertising Coca Cola) while several more looked on from the side.  As we sat there, my mind wandered...I wanted to know what the women thought of the mass, what they thought of life in prison, what they thought of life in general.  I'll let you know if I ever find out.

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