I spent the winter 2012 volunteering in the women’s prison in Xela, Guatemala. The women in the prison were serving time for a variety of different crimes ranging from petty theft and prostitution to drug trafficking and murder.
One of the things that stuck me in the prison, were the unique relationships between the inmates. The guards rarely went inside the gates, leaving the women to fend for themselves. Despite the clear hierarchy with a Queen (La Reina) in charge, their compassion for each other was admirable.
La Reina and her 3-year-old daughter had their own small apartment with private bath and kitchen. She had a few trusted assistants that helped her maintaining order and stability. She had set up her own little shop where the other inmates could buy basic things like eggs, snacks, soft drinks and personal items such as shampoo and sanitary towels.
La Reina ruled the prison with a strict and steady hand with the help of a few trusted deputies. Despite her gentle appearance she was a woman who demanded respect and obedience. However she was also known for her generosity. On several occasions she sponsored bread for those in the prison who had nothing.
For the most part the prison functioned as a closed community with little or no means where the women looked out for one another.
Having a common third; like a fun physical activity like Zumba, helped break the ice and through time and patience it was possible to establish rapport with several of the wome n in the prison.
Children born in the prison are allowed to stay with their mothers until they are 4 years old. In the winter 2012 there were 2 children residing in the prison. A 7 month old girl and the 3-year old daughter of ‘La Reina’.
Children are considered especially precious in the prison and the women stood in line to care for them. The children never lacked for anything, neither clothes, food or toys.
Maria de Los Angeles was one of the women who took a special interest in me. She repeatedly tried to convince me to give her my shoes or my watch or to bring her food. She could play the role of a hardcore gangster one minute and then turn on a dime and desperately try to make me take pity on her.
Despite her constant cheeky attempts to con me I was particularly fascinated by Maria. Her body was covered in scars that told a tale of a life far from my own safe upbringing.
I never asked them why they were there. Buy not asking them that one question it seemed like it open a door for me to ask them anything else. With mutual respect and trust it was possible to learn much more about the individuals then I had thought possible.
I benefitted from not necessarily knowing the details of their crimes and I was able to focus on them as humans with the basic needs just like everybody else.
Probably one of my biggest lessons from this experience is that sometimes it is better not to ask the most obvious question.