March 14, 2014

New Developments at Prison

The latest numbers coming out for this year say there are 8,871 inmates in the 16 prisons across Paraguay.   According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 70% of them are awaiting trial.   They're hanging out while their paperwork shifts hands, or, exponentially worse, sits on a desk forgotten.  As you can imagine, this leads to a lot of confusion and frustration.

Sometimes when we go, we cross paths with other folks doing "religious visits," as they're called, in other wings.  A few nuns coming with bags of bread, a handful of older ladies in skirts carrying Bibles, a few men in ties going to the back where the adult men live.  We smile, greet each other, shake hands, pass cheek kisses, and go on our way.  But this week, we were all called together for a special meeting, where representatives from the capital shared ideas with us.
Tacumbu Prison in Asuncion, Paraguay.  Photo from ABC Color.
At the meeting, people doing what we do in different prisons came to present their ideas and tell a little about the programs being put into place across the country.  We formed a local committee and talked about how we can work together to make our local prison better, how we can minister to the needs of the people incarcerated here, not only spiritually, but also their physical, emotional, and social needs.  I had the opportunity to share about the program we are starting with the teen boys in April, using Bible-based material developed by a fellow missionary in Asuncion.  The focus is on preparing the boys for reintegrating themselves into society when they are released.

I've never gotten the chance to talk about that program, partly because, as I said, we just meet the other visitors as we pass in the hallway.  Everyone seemed interested and agreed that this sort of teaching is important.

Within five minutes of arriving back home, I got a message from the missionary who developed the workbook.  Before I read his note, I had to comment that it was so strange to hear from him when I'd JUST been talking about him and the program a few minutes before, for the first time outside of our little team.  He went on to explain that he'd like to come here to offer training on how to use the program.  Great timing!

Then today, we visited with the ladies in their wing.  Normally, we spend a few minutes praying, a few minutes in Bible study, a few minutes sharing.  Today we had much more time than normal and a couple of other missionaries taught the women how to do some crafts they can later sell.  This is important because they have to buy their food and their toiletries, as well as anything else they might need like clothes or shoes, and medical care.  You know that crafty stuff is not my cup of tea, so I just hung out talking with the gals who were also standing back watching.  After a few minutes, two of them invited me and my teammate to go back to their cell to talk.  What a wonderful time we had getting to know them and talking about life, their families, God, prison... whatever came up.  It's very rare that we have the chance to really stop and spend one-on-one time like that.

During the course of our time with them, they mentioned that they'd been transferred here recently from a larger prison, where they were working.  It seems the other place had some sewing machines set up and a few contracts with outside companies.  The ladies made beautiful linens and purses, sold them to these businesses, who, in turn, sold them to the public.  We talked to them about the possibility of getting something like that going here.

In our local prison, there is no work program or even a daily schedule.  I don't have to tell you the dangers of an idle mind.  Of being cooped up with the same people day after day in a tiny space with nothing to do.  Of having nothing to take your mind off the children or parents who are waiting for you outside.  And keep in mind that 7 out of 10 of these people haven't been convicted of anything yet.  They're just waiting for their day in court. Sure, many of them are guilty, but with percentages that high, it stands to reason that there are innocent people living here, too.

Back to the sewing ladies who want to keep working.  When we met with the group earlier this week, one of the things they explained was that the government is taking interest in bettering the conditions inside the prisons, as the UN was pretty unhappy with some of our human rights infringements.  So now is the time to ask for grants, to try to get equipment, to take advantage of the political interest in prisons.

Is it coincidence that within a few days, we had our first opportunity to create interest in the reintegration Bible study, the creator of the program wants to come train us to use it, we find out about the availability of work programs, and we meet new ladies who have experience and desire to run such a program?  Nah, I don't think so.  I think God is answering prayers and has plans for these people that society has forgotten.

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