So Saturday was a first for me. I had been to a prison here before, but a young boy’s prison...and that was almost 12 years ago. I had never been to an adult prison.
We went because our Pastor Celeo met a pastor in the prison, a man who has been incarcerated for 10 years there (he was at the time working for people selling drugs, and when someone got killed...he was told he either took the fall, or he and his family would be killed.) He was obvious in his testimony...the Bible, the words, the incredible patience, the graciousness. It was also somewhat obvious that the other prisoners respected him. He is to be released in approximately six months.
The prisoners were extremely well groomed and showered...I did some investigating to find out this was for the purpose of our visit. They were extremely polite and well behaved...also for our visit. Only prisoners who were pre-approved got access to the brigade, which I am still not sure how that all worked, but given that there were over 500 men in the prison...which is more like a very small jail in terms of physical size...getting to be one of the roughly 130 seen was a tough cut.
There were some men who were in charge of other prisoners...still dressed as prisoners, which means, dressed like people out on the street...but these guys had clubs in the back of their pants. I asked around about this...apparently this privilege position comes with seniority, respect etc. and the police in charge of the prison allow these senior people to keep order inside the jail.
It hit me time after time that had it not been for the screening of our bags, of us having to leave our cellphones outside (although...a prisoner had a BlackBerry), turning in our IDs, being locked inside the little Catholic meeting place (the evangelical meeting place was “less secure”) that I would not have thought of these guys as “prisoners” or hardened criminals...but just guys. I was impressed to see everyone in our group acting the exact same way. Obviously we were in jail, but pointing it out, or acting scared, etc. never seemed to cross anyone’s minds.
In fact, when we saw the 18 women that were being held there (separate from the men of course...we could not even have any of the men in the room while they were there) two of them told me they suffered from depression, anxiety, and insomnia. I asked when that started, and they replied “well, since I came here.” We talked about that...but never broached the subject of why they were there...from the obvious gang banger, to the matronly looking 69 year old grandmother type...I may have been curious, but it just seemed like piling on to ask such a question. I mean...does it really matter? The only thing it would probably serve would be for me to look at them in a different light. Even the man from the USA that was there, and had been there for 7 1/2 years, who did not speak Spanish that well (so he said)... I would rather not know why he was there. That was not our reason for being there.
We heard a few testimonies of how the Church there had changed lives...powerful stuff. That was our motivation.
The sign says "Don't feel abandoned because I am always with you, I can not leave you because you are my son, my creation, my purpose and my being. Because of this, call on me wherever and whenever. I will be there.