In a Chiapas Prison, Women Face Hardship, Shortage of Services

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS — “Sleep little one, sleep. It’s better to sleep because the day is long,” whispers Adela Pérez as her brown-skinned, five-month-old baby cries inconsolably. “Sleep, Enrique, sleep,” she says, rubbing his little back with dark, dry hands.

“Stop crying, please. They’re going to yell at us,” she says, pacing around the small patio. She looks around with fear, “Shut up, please. I don’t want problems with the others,” says Pérez, afraid of being reprimanded by the cell block guards or by one of her 45 “housemates.“

Pérez, 23, is serving a 10 year sentence in the women’s area of State Readaptation and Prevention Center Number 5, called Cereso 5, 20 kilometers outside of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. Perez gave birth in prison, two years after meeting Manuel Pérez, Enrique’s father, who is serving time for robbery in the men’s section of the center.

There are 15 Ceresos in the state, which house over 3,500 people. Three of these correctional centers, located in Cintalapa, Tapachula and San Cristóbal, have wards for females where over 300 women accused of murder, robbery, fraud and crimes against health, which include drug possession or trafficking, live.

Until 2000, male and female prisoners were housed in the same prisons. But former governor, Pablo Salazar, who left office in December 2006, implemented a series of prison reforms that concentrated all women prisoners in special areas within three Ceresos. “This decision was made because the incidence of crime is lower among women, and so it was difficult to maintain programs or women’s wards for just two or three women,” says Rodolfo del Pino Estrada, former director of Cereso 5.

Still, some critics and inmates argue that the consolidation has resulted in overcrowding and has moved many women inmates to centers far from their familial support networks, though prison officials deny that such problems exist.

For the 45 women and three children at Cereso 5, time passes slowly. The days are punctuated by occasional conflicts stemming from cultural differences, scant resources and overcrowding.

“They accused me of killing my baby,” says Pérez as she tries to lull Enrique to sleep. “The midwife accused me, but it’s not true. He was my first baby and wasn’t born right. I didn’t kill him!” she says. Then, lowering her voice, “Life here is really hard for me and my baby. We are cold a lot and we get sick,” Pérez adds.

The Cereso 5 is located in the Chiapan Highlands where temperatures often drop below zero in the winter, making hot water and warm clothing essential for the inmates. The correctional center provides women with small buckets and two electric-coil hot water heaters to share. “There are only two heaters, so if you want to bathe with warm water, you have to stand in line,” says Pérez who has been in the prison for three years.

Beds are also in short supply at Cereso 5, where there are only 30 sleeping spaces for 46 women. At least 15 inmates share the one by two meter concrete slab beds, said feminist lawyer Martha Figueroa who visits the prison to give self-esteem and relationships workshops to the inmates.

The prisoners at Cereso 5 cook their own meals on five stoves and a hotplate, so competition for the equipment often causes tensions. “We cook our own food, but because there are a lot of us, its hard because there aren’t many stoves. You have to wait in line to use one,” says Pérez, looking at Enrique, finally asleep. Figueroa agrees that the shortage of stoves causes problems among the inmates.

“El Cereso doesn’t provide a cafeteria, but we do give them a small monthly stipend of about 20 pesos, about $2, a day so that they can buy food to cook,” del Pino Estrada says.

Del Pino Estrada maintains that the women’s area of the prison is not overcrowded and that problems exist between inmates simply because they cannot “get along,” not because they compete for resources. “Of course, there are problems amongst [the women]. Problems because, ‘You took my pot, you took my frying pan, you didn’t clean up, it’s your turn to take the trash out,’ but these are just problems of living together, that happen anywhere. They aren’t serious problems,” he says.

The conflicts have a deeper root, stemming from cultural differences between indigenous and mestiza inmates, says del Pino Estrada, noting that divides exist amongst inmates and staff as well.

“We have communication problems. Many [inmates] don’t understand Spanish well, and they can’t communicate amongst themselves, so they create groups and problems,” he says. Still, del Pino Estrada says that the problems at Cereso 5 have never been too much for the administrators and staff to handle.

But conflicts can turn serious between inmates, resulting in stiff consequences such as relocation to prisons in other parts of the state. Fabiola Méndez, 28, was recently transferred to Cereso 5 from the Tapachula prison after she was found to have drugs in prison. Méndez, who was already serving a 10 year sentence for drug smuggling between Guatemala and Mexico, claimed a cellmate planted the drugs on her clothing.

Though some of the problems are the same, Méndez is now faced with new issues and conflicts at Cereso 5. Overcrowding and competition for necessities are common in the Tapachula prison too, she said, where about 148 women share 120 beds. As opposed to the cold winters, her former prison home in the border city, the temperatures average between 100 and 105 degrees, and prison inmates suffer frequent water shortages that leave them without water for drinking or bathing.

But the hardest part for Méndez of her transfer to San Cristóbal is that she is now 210 kilometers away from Tapachula, which is an eight-hour journey from her family’s home. “I am going to be here another 10 years, and now I’m far away from my mother and three children. I haven’t seen them in three months,” she says, crying.

The distance and cost of transportation also makes it hard for Pérez’s father visit as well, because, “the house is more than five hours anyway, and he doesn’t always have money for transportation,” she says.

But, for Pérez, life at Cereso 5 hasn’t only meant sadness and hardship. She said it has also brought positive experiences, such as the opportunity to learn to read and write and the chance to learn a skill. At the correctional center, Pérez learned to make paper flowers that she sells for extra money.

Her cellmates make crafts and embroideries sold by family members or in a store in downtown San Cristobal. Others work in the Cereso 5 bakery. The money they earn supplements their food stipends and gives them the means to buy warm clothing and medicine.

“Many of the activities that the inmates do to supplement their incomes are things that they had done before coming here, such as weaving and embroidery. But we have programs here that teach them new skills such as sewing, baking and making piñata and figures out of paper mace and crepe paper,” says del Pino Estrada.

The prison also aims to help build and rebuild families. Relationships are permitted between inmates at correctional centers in Chiapas, said del Pino Estrada, as long as couples sign an agreement that formalizes the relationship. “The idea is for them to form stable families and to remake part of their lives, not to generate more problems,” he adds.

There are more than 24 couples in the Cereso 5, and 14 of them have lasted more than four years. Some couples, like Adela and Manuel, have become parents. The Pérez family will be together until baby Enrique’s fourth birthday, when he will have to leave Cereso 5. If his parents are both still in prison, he will live with a family member or in a group home until they are free.

Meanwhile, Pérez said that raising a child in prison is “no problem” and that the family is together twice a week. “Sometimes we sleep together. [Manuel] also sends me money, but I work, too, so that we can get by,” she says.

Note: Cameras were not allowed inside Cereso 5.

Originally published in 2006 PIWDW Newswire