Global Service Scholar: Valerie Nguyen
It’s 5 a.m. and I’ve just woken up to turn on the boiler for the shower – otherwise I’d only have cold water. I go back to sleep for an hour before getting up again to shower. Then, it’s time to return to my bed and wait for the bell to ring around 7:30 a.m. for breakfast. I try to eat quickly so that I have enough time to pack a lunch for the prison. Sometimes, I’ll just eat three pieces of plain bread with a cup of oatmeal and I’ll pack a sandwich with avocado, eggs and sausages with a side of bananas. I remind myself not to bring my cellphone because it is not allowed. Only bus money, food, documents, and white board markers for English lessons.
At around 8 a.m., Karla, Denise, Allison and I head out to board the number 13 bus. This bus is an adventure all on its own. I’ve learned to immediately grab hold of something because the bus moves as soon as you step foot in it – and it moves fast. I must have gained some muscle holding on to the bar when I gave up my seat for a senior or mother and child. After 40 to 60 minutes, we can see the stone walls, barbed wire and watch towers. We pay for our ride and run to the gates, where we show our authorization papers. We’ve made it past the first barrier. We arrive at a large, metal blue door with a caged peep hole and show our paperwork again.
Second barrier passed. Inside, the desk attendant and the guard at the door write all our names down in their records and collect our documents. After stamping our left arms, we’re allowed past the third barrier. Our things go through a metal detector and each of us is patted down individually. Fourth barrier passed. We proceed up and down a set of stairs to another large metal door, beyond which another attendant checks our papers and writes down our names. That’s the fifth barrier. We walk past four more gates before we reach the door of the women’s prison – another big, black, metal door. Again, another woman opens the door and writes all our names down before we are free to help the women in the prison with anything they require.
The women’s courtyard is painted orange, with Quechua and Spanish written on its walls. To the right is the kitchen, the shop, and clothing lines that never seem to be empty. Women are sitting around on small stools crocheting or embroidering blankets that they will eventually sell for 50-100 soles.
Their cells are colorful, with curtains draped at the doorways. For the most part, these women are free to do what they want, when they want — aside from class, eating, and showering. I begin with greeting everyone I see with a kiss on the cheek. I tend to head straight for “la sala”, the makeshift classroom in the back left corner because these are the women I am best acquainted with. After greeting everyone, having a few conversations, helping with anything they might need, perhaps even participating in Professor Rolin’s communications class, I return outside at 10 a.m. to lead exercises. A mistake that I still find myself making is skipping from “dieciseis” to “dieciocho” when counting repetitions. The counts are accompanied by the misleading groans, but I have never met a group of women more eager to exercise. Every time I stop because I assume they are tired, they ask for more. These workouts typically end with “Thank you”, “When will we be working out again?”, “Can you teach us dancing?”, and “Can you teach us self-defense?”.
Then, I return to the secondary classroom (the highest level of education they have in the women’s prison), and help them with English. If there’s nothing to do, I go around, converse with the women, and sometimes learn their stories. Every single day at the prison has been an insightful day for me.
The day ends around 3:30 or 4 p.m., and we all exit the same way we came in. We catch the number 13 bus, I fall asleep, someone wakes me up, and we get off the bus. After walking home, it’s only a couple hours before dinner time. After dinner is usually a debrief of everyone’s day – which I am grateful for because I get to learn about what it’s like at the orphanage, the soup kitchen, and the special education school. Afterwards, we all retire and rest so we can start again the next day.