|An "illegal" picture|
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 hours...it 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.