Global Service Scholar: Allison Anaya
I don’t consider myself a person with strong preconceptions. It seems to me that with every word a person says, their personality is revealed like a layers of petals, and I enjoy being surprised by what I learn. Before arriving at the prison in Peru for my four-week stint, I especially tried to prepare myself to dispel any preconceptions about the women who I would be working with. At the same time I knew I could not be ignorant entering a high-risk area like a prison for the first time, so I did my share of research.
Most of the Peruvian women we are working with are incarcerated for drug trafficking. I have done research on the global prison system and I’ve learned how the war on drugs targets the poor, and how drug dealing is often a crime born out of need. I have also interviewed someone who was wrongfully incarcerated and gained insight on what the prison system is like, and the different ways an inmate finds peace through serving time even if they are innocent. Although I knew miscarriages of justice are just as common in Peru as anywhere else in the world, I was still shocked when the women would tell me, or I would overhear their stories, about the seemingly unjust punishments they received. For example a woman was considering pleading guilty to a crime she did not commit because her sister had set her up and she did not think the court would believe her. I honestly think she might plead guilty to get a shorter sentence than if she goes to trial, just so she can be there for her daughter sooner.
I’m volunteering at “La Cuna” or the preschool/daycare in the prison. I could have easily assumed that the women were bad mothers for not thinking about the consequences of committing a crime while raising a child under three years of age (the oldest age they are allowed to stay with their mothers in the prison). But like in the world outside the prison, the mothers vary, and the children’s behavior around and without them also varies accordingly. One of the obstacles that some of the women have spoken with me about is the distinct method of keeping the babies with their mothers for the fear that the child will be traumatized by living in the prison. Although some of the children do show behavior issues I think keeping the babies close to their mothers is not completely bad, though it would be better if there were more regulations and resources for the children and the mothers.
I had the notion that daily life in prison would be a very strict American regimen, but in the prison in Ayacucho it seems everyday the inmates have the choice to do what they want, with the exceptions of food hours and bedtime. The women have the freedom to pick up a craft, go to classes, learn skills, watch the sports games or do nothing if they desire. What is a big challenge is that since the mothers might have things to do, the babies wander around, and if the mother is irresponsible, it can be extremely dangerous. Just this Monday, we found out the most insecure baby was taken to the hospital because of what seemed like an allergic reaction. The mothers were blaming the child’s mother for being irresponsible because the night before the baby was by himself walking up and down stairs and a guard had to tell her to watch her child. The mother was trying to blame his illness Saturday morning on eating playdoh the morning before when we were there, but honestly it is very hard to pinpoint the cause when the mother is usually negligent of her baby. It was difficult to imagine the poor one-year-old suffering, and I felt especially bad knowing the problem was being blamed on the professor we were volunteering for, because by extension it felt like it was our fault. It was disheartening, but talking to the women and listening to their stories made the day a little less sad, because the women are incredible and eager to learn everything.