Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 142 | Mayo 1993



The World of Imprisoned Women

"In Nicaragua's prisons, you won't find people in suits and ties," says Lieutenant María Estela Ruiz, head of reeducation efforts for the National Prison System, "but only the poorest people." The same applies to the women's prison. There are neither made up "dolls" nor elegant women among the prisoners. Just poor ones. Is it that the rich in this case, rich women don't commit crimes? Or is it simply that they have the money to pay good lawyers?

Raquel Fernández

One of the most notable aspects of the Nicaraguan penal system is the tremendous gender imbalance. Of a total population of nearly 3,000, it's rare that there are more than 70 female prisoners, a little more than 2%. In general, people believe that women commit fewer crimes because they tend to spend most of their time at home. They, therefore, aren't out on the streets, which is seen as the breeding ground for all vices, where they would be tempted into lives of crime.

This could well be the explanation in other socioeconomic contexts, but not in Nicaragua, where female headed households are quite common. And even in those families where responsibilities are shared by a couple, the woman tends to contribute a significant portion of household income. As a consequence, women have as much or even more intense contact with their surrounding reality as men.

No Rearguard

There are, however, other factors which tend to keep women out of prison. The humanitarian principle upon which current penal philosophy is based, promoted during the Sandinista government, makes it more difficult, for example, to keep a pregnant woman imprisoned. When a pregnant woman is jailed, the judge will generally grant her release shortly before her child is to be born, if the crime she committed is not too serious.

Nevertheless, the difference is too great to be explained solely by looking at pregnancy statistics, minor crimes and releases. Perhaps there is another explanation: women are more careful not to commit crimes so as not to be imprisoned, because they are well aware of their responsibility to their children. They often have no "rearguard" to fall back on, and in the cases where they do have some sort of support, it tends to be fragile and overstressed. In any case, it is often not a rearguard to be counted on for too long a period of time.

But there are women prisoners. And these women, undergoing the suffering that is a natural complement to losing one's freedom, must also face the pain of leaving their children behind in what is usually a less than ideal situation.

Why Do Women Go to Prison?

According to Lt. Clara Marcia Páez Sánchez, head of education for the La Esperanza Women's Prison, the range of crimes that most often result women being imprisoned tend to be related to property: robbery, theft or swindles.

Nevertheless, in 1992 a new phenomenon appeared. For a certain time period, the majority of the women imprisoned had committed crimes against people: assault or homicide. Páez attributed this tendency to the social violence permeating the country, and said that several months later, crimes against property were once again the leading cause of women's imprisonment.

Among this group of crimes, theft is the most frequent, and within this category, there is a form of theft considered typical of women which sends many poor women to prison. The scenario is as follows: a maid, after working an established period of time, discovers that her employer will not pay her wages. Days and days go by, and in her small neighborhood store they stop letting her buy on credit and still her patrona does not pay. Finally the maid gets tired of waiting and steals some object of value from the house in order to make up for part of what she is owed. The employer then denounces the maid as a thief, and she ends up in prison.

The Problem of Physical Infrastructure

The La Esperanza Reeducation Penal Center is the only prison in the country exclusively for women. In the country's six other prisons, female prisoners are housed in a wing separate from the men.

At the time this report went to press, La Esperanza had a population of 40 inmates, the largest group of female prisoners in one center in the country. Sixteen women are imprisoned in Chinandega, 10 in Matagalpa and 7 in Granada. The other centers house 1 or 2 female prisoners each, for a total of 81 a surprising number, according to the prison officials interviewed for this report, although the prison population is always changing.

Two years ago, La Esperanza suffered a serious setback in terms of its physical installations. The prison was located on the grounds of what had been a luxurious residence, complete with swimming pool. The house itself was used for offices and resting areas for prison officials, who work 24 hour shifts. The pool was used as an incentive to reward inmates for good behavior. And the huge garden was a nice place for the prisoners' children to play when they were visiting.

After the 1990 elections, however, the former owners returned from the United States and claimed their house. It was almost immediately returned to them by the new government, which did not take into account the use to which the house and grounds had been put.

In spite of this, La Esperanza continues to be the prison boasting the best conditions in the country, though its current installations are very modest. Nicaragua's other prisons, including the Tipitapa Penal Center for male prisoners and the co ed prisons in the country's other regions, have suffered tremendous deterioration.

According to Dr. Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, director of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), the situation is so serious that "it is, in fact, a violation of human rights by omission, given that the National Prison System is not receiving the resources it needs."
On different occasions, the advisability of building independent installations for women in the regions has been discussed, since, although the number of women prisoners is actually quite small, the particular characteristics of reeducation would justify such a move. But when there is not even money to guarantee the potable water supply, a problem affecting almost all the prisons in Nicaragua, the construction of new buildings is virtually impossible.

The Need to Eat

In terms of nutrition, La Esperanza is considered to be the center that provides the best diet in the country. Nevertheless, it does not even meet the caloric level considered necessary for survival.

Dr. Núñez feels that this problem, which is accentuated by actual levels of hunger and malnutrition in the country's other centers, has a double origin. On the one hand, the economic structural adjustment program has affected all the country's institutions, including the prisons. In addition, Nicaragua's most reactionary sectors feel that the prisons are still "in the hands of Sandinistas" and thus block the earmarking of funds, hoping thus to see the system fail.

In the case of La Esperanza, the small number of inmates facilitates the search for solutions. Some religious institutions and nongovernmental organizations contribute food to round out the inmates' diets. In addition, on visiting days, those families who have a bit more to count on try to bring food for their relatives and still have enough left over to help out with the inmates who did not receive visitors.

But there is another surprising source of contributions those offered by former inmates whose life took a turn for the better after their stay in La Esperanza. Lt. Páez explains that former prisoners who are able to achieve a stable economic position contribute food and items for personal hygiene as "a kind of vow, an expression of their solidarity with those who remain inside."

Nevertheless, the inmates' diet is insufficient. During 1992, the National Prison System's food budget was .90 córdobas ($.15) per meal per inmate. Taking into account inflation and devaluation, in 1993 that figure will have dropped to .73 córdobas ($.12). It would take a tremendous increase for this Lilliputian budget to grow to the point where it could provide for basic human needs.

Preventive and Curative Health

In order to attend to the inmates' health problems, La Esperanza works with a number of organizations. Mondays through Fridays, a nurse serves the center, seeing to routine cases. In addition, two inmates have been trained to administer established treatments and deal with and evaluate possible emergency situations. Páez notes that these inmates were selected based on good behavior and educational level, as well as the fact that the work appealed to them.

"When one of these inmates is on the verge of being released, we select and train someone else to replace her," Páez adds. The inmate is able to leave the prison with a new profession and enough practice under her belt to guarantee that she won't find herself behind bars again.

Every Tuesday, a doctor from the Prison System sees patients, checking up on those with chronic problems and examining new inmates.
Gynecological problems are attended by a mobile medical unit sent by Ixchen, a nongovernmental organization that visits the center twice a month and sees an average of 15 patients at each visit. Ixchen does regular pap smears, offers prenatal care and examines new inmates. In Matagalpa, León and Granada, the regions where Ixchen operates local branches, the prisoners make periodic visits to those clinics. The goal, however, is for Ixchen's mobile medical units to visit the regional prisons, taking advantage of visits to nearby factories and the like.

Ixchen's deputy manager, Silvia Hernández, declares that, "one single woman patient is sufficient for the mobile unit and its professional team to go out on the road, though it's much more expensive. But, of course, we try to make the best use of our resources."

Motherhood In Prison

La Esperanza doesn't offer conditions for conjugal visits, but a number of the inmates have spouses currently serving time in the Tipitapa prison, and they have some visiting privileges. In these cases, at the woman's request, she is fitted with an IUD in order to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. Says Páez, "None of the inmates wants to get pregnant while serving time in prison."

That's understandable. While an attempt is made to win the woman's release shortly before delivery, it is not always granted. And it is very difficult for a woman who has just given birth to give up her infant, leaving the child in hands that aren't always totally reliable.

On some occasions, however, women are sent to prison when they are already pregnant, and that can create problems. "Oftentimes they're young girls who are part of a delinquent gang of thieves," explains Páez, "and they have had relations with a number of the boys in the gang and aren't sure who the father is, or when they got pregnant. They don't eat well, they don't take care of themselves, they have to flee when they're caught stealing something, they pick up all sorts of venereal diseases, and the one who suffers is the child."
Sometimes, the child suffers so that it is not born. Or, even worse, the baby is born with serious deformities with nobody to take care of it.

Sentences and Age Range
The La Esperanza Women's Prison opened on december 10, 1987, with capacity for 120 inmates. It has never been full, and at the time information for this report was gathered, there were 40 prisoners, half of whom are between 16 and 25 years of age. the second largest age group is from 25 to 35 years, with very few over that, although a 72-year-old woman is currently being held on drug charges. The sentences range being held on drug charges. The sentences range from 6 months to 17 years, but most are less than 3 years. When the prison was opened, some women who had belonged to Somoza's National transferred there, but they were pardoned, as were their male counterparts, in the final months of the Sandinista government.

Small Community, Large Inferno

The La Esperanza center is a microcosm where, in a relatively small space, people of radically different customs and habits live. The women prison officers are in charge of imposing discipline and order which the inmates often resist. Many of the inmates have serious behavioral problems, often linked to their low educational level and a lack of affection and stability.

According to Lieutenant Páez, the majority of the problems of coexistence in the prison are similar to those seen among small children: so and so was looking at me when those two were talking and I know they were talking about me; they laughed at me when I walked by; they didn't look at me or smile when I walked by, it's because they've got something against me; you talk to her, because I don't want any hassles, and so on and so on. Smiling, Páez comments that, "sometimes they're just like little girls." Yet she is not unaware of the gravity of the situation, given that this emphasis on the minutiae of life demonstrates an alarming immaturity.

Behavioral problems are common. In 1992, the center suffered from instability as a result of a group of seven or eight exceptionally rebellious inmates who constantly challenged the disciplinary norms and clashed with prison officials and each other. The problem was finally resolved through specialized treatment, in some cases psychiatric, for several of the inmates involved.

Integral Formation
During their stay La Esperanza, the prisoners receive different kinds of basic education, convering areas that include health care, hygiene, nutrition and sex education, as well as pediatric information to assist them in the care of their children once they're released. To meet these needs, they receive periodic talks by specialists in a variety of topics.

One aspect that is of great interest to the prisoners is information about legal matters that offers them more precise knowledge about their own situation, and opens the possibility for them to take the initiative in achieving their release.

"We had one inmate," remembers Lt. Páez, "with two completely different personalities. Sometimes she was an aggressive and completely unmanageable rebel, but she could also be a very little girl, who wanted us to spoil her like a baby, who talked like a little girl. When we looked into her past, we discovered she had never received any love, never had a family, nothing."

Father Amado Peña, Archdiocesan Vicar for the prison, comments, "They've received nothing from society, and nothing can be asked from them, we have no right." He recalls the case of a young girl whose 16th birthday was celebrated as part of his pastoral activities inside the prison. When she saw the cake, she burst into tears. It was the first time in her life that someone had remembered her birthday, and it had to be in prison.

The inmates face a myriad of family problems no father in their lives (frequently even their mother does not know who the father is), the mother often alcoholic or a prostitute; they are sometimes children of men who may have given them many things, but never love or time; and thousands of other expressions of family disintegration. As a consequence, they have few good hygienic or nutritional habits. In some cases, they are not even aware of how to properly use a toilet and the prison officials must teach them, which can generate serious tensions.

Sometimes prison officials can turn to the inmates' families to help in their efforts, but in many cases there is no family. Some families even encourage the inmates' disciplinary problems, sometimes out of a tendency to cause as many problems as possible as a generalized revenge against the whole of society; and, in other cases, because the inmate's family is actually afraid of her, even though she is imprisoned.

Nevertheless, in the long term, through dialogue or specialized clinical treatment, the inmates little by little put their aggressive attitudes to one side and begin to fall in line with the disciplined life of a prison. With time, some even begin to develop a deep trust in the prison officials, whom they sometimes see as the mothers they never had.

A tendency toward lesbianism is occasionally noted among the inmates. The criteria prevailing among the prison officials is that this is essentially a search for affection, yet lesbian relationships are not permitted within the center for fear that they could create serious discipline problems. But neither can a friendship between two inmates be prohibited, as long as it does not interfere with prison discipline.

Work as Education

One mechanism that helps resolve many problems is the work carried out inside the prison. All the inmates have some kind of job, as cooks, in maintenance or in production: the women sew, and their products are marketed abroad. The sales generate income to improve the center's diet, offer a small stipend to the inmates and make small scale improvements. The prison produces sets of sheets, rag dolls, placemats, cushions, pillows, mops and clothes, among other things.

Sometimes the prison is also able to obtain contracts from clothing companies, giving an economic boost to the inmates most of whom are female heads of household. But work is not always available, and the recession is hitting the prison just as it is outside. When there is work, everyone contributes to a small fund to assure the stipends even when the work dries up.

The majority of the inmates enter the prison knowing nothing about sewing, and the prison officials must, therefore, teach them the basics. Some inmates really put their minds to it and are soon working the industrial sewing machines. They currently receive no certificate for this on the job training, but more formal courses are being planned for the future that would complement it, so that when a woman is released, she will have the papers to facilitate future employment.

Difficult Family Relations

The majority of the prisoners are single women. Some have more or less stable relationships with men who come to visit them during their first months in prison. But after two or three months, the men tend to disappear, and with them, the woman's relative peace of mind about her children.

The situation of their children is a factor that causes the prisoners great tension. When a man stops showing up, the inmate can be almost sure that he has found another woman and can hardly hope that her children's situation will improve. A sense of insecurity for one's children, particularly when they are quite small, is the worst of all tortures.

Some of the prisoners know they have nobody, that their children are absolutely alone. Perhaps the oldest child will take on responsibility for the rest. In other cases, it's a neighbor woman, sister, grandmother or godmother who assumes responsibility for the children. They are almost always women already overburdened by work, children, poverty and other difficulties who offer their solidarity to the imprisoned mother.

In an informal survey among the inmates, envío found only two who are able to rely on their male partners. Several others, with partners who are also imprisoned, at least know exactly where the men are. But the majority of the prisoners depend solely on the assistance and solidarity of other women. This includes those who get tangled up in the promises made them by some delinquent who ends up abandoning them, leaving them alone in prison.

Páez doesn't hide her indignation when she discusses this. "If you go to the prison at Tipitapa on visiting days, you'll see only women and children, and that's normal, because there are almost 1,000 men there. But come here on visiting days, and you'll see the same thing. No men. It would seem that men are only there for people when things are easy, but they can't deal with problems or help someone who's facing difficulties. Especially if that person is a woman."

The prison tries to create a festive atmosphere on visiting days: there is music, the prisoners dress up as far as regulations permit, and children can run and play on the patio, which is clean and shaded by large trees. As long as the visit lasts, the prisoners who have visitors are in good spirits. All the children make friends quickly and play together as their mothers talk with visiting relatives.

The problems begin when visiting hours are over. The children do not want to leave, and, crying, cling to their mothers. Long after they have gone, the children's cries can be heard as they walk down the road. And another long week begins.

Concern for her children is torture for an imprisoned woman knowing, for instance that her child fell and there was no mother around to offer consolation; or that a not necessarily friendly hand slapped the child, and that in the best of cases. It is far worse when the mother knows her children are going hungry and being mistreated or even sexually abused in the hands of people who do not care about them.

All the women suffer from the fact that their families, particularly their children, are far away, and almost no one admits that she does not receive family visits and is, in large part, ignored. One single visit is enough for a woman to insist that she receives frequent visits, that she is loved. Nonetheless, the fear of being forgotten is expressed when the women implore: "Don't forget us, come back to see us. Now you know the way." Their eyes, even in the midst of friendly smiles, show shadows of concern and anxiety.

When a prisoner has no news of her children for too long a period of time, the prison authorities do as much as they can to locate them. Sometimes they find out that the children are alone and undergoing serious difficulties. In these cases, the prisoner provides names and addresses of relatives or friends who can perhaps take charge of the children.

An additional complicating factor is that many of the prisoners are not from Managua, but from other regions throughout the country sometimes very remote places from which it is difficult and expensive to travel. In these cases, the adult responsible for the children is not able to visit every week, and when she does come, she does not risk bringing the children on long and sometimes dangerous trips, depending on ongoing armed activity in the area.
If the children are totally abandoned and there is nobody to take charge of them, the prison authorities look for institutional solutions through centers for minors, or try to find a foster family. Neither of these solutions is easy, as there are few centers offering attention to minors, and few families are willing to house the children of prisoners if they are not relatives.

During the Sandinista government, there was effective collaboration between La Esperanza authorities and the Nicaraguan Institute for Social Security and Welfare (INSSBI), and a lot more was done to resolve these kinds of situations. This coordination meant that children of prisoners who had nowhere to go were taken in at the Rolando Carazo and La Mascota centers, where weekly visits were scheduled to maintain the ties between mothers and children. But this coordination broke down when the current government took office, and it has not been reestablished. Thus, according to Páez, these kinds of problems are even more acute today.

Responsibility and Guilt

According to the inmates, virtually no one is guilty of the crime of which she has been accused. Even when caught red handed, as it were, the prisoner insists that it was the first time she had done such a thing.

One prisoner who admits guilt was charged with transporting one kilogram of cocaine from the Atlantic Coast to be sold in Managua. She says, of course, that it was the first time. But they got her. Now she knows she will not see her children for a very long time, because bringing them all the way from the coast to Managua is far too expensive. And she got involved in the whole thing in the first place to try and bring in a little more money for her children. "This situation is really messed up, there are no jobs and everything's so expensive..."
Another prisoner, who says she is not guilty, has found an original way of protesting her imprisonment: she refuses to cut her hair. Three years after her incarceration, she has a long and luxurious head of hair. "I won't cut my hair until they release me," she says with a sweet but determined smile. "Perhaps it will be hanging down, brushing the floor like a mop, but I still won't cut it." Her daughter, a baby when she was imprisoned, will be almost a young lady by the time she is released.

In the prison garden, an older prisoner works, planting young seedlings and watering. "Nobody visits me, I'm all alone. My four children were killed, all boys. Fights over land, you know how peasants are." But when the envío reporter moved on, the guide commented that, "All her children are alive, and though they live quite far away, they come to visit regularly. But the poor woman's not quite right in the head."
Young women, hardly adolescents, are well represented among the prison population. The lack of job opportunities and training, combined with irresponsibility carried to an extreme, have landed them in prison. With store windows offering tempting items, and society giving them no chance to possess them through an honest route, it seems easier to take a shortcut of sorts and get the goods however one can.

But, in spite of everything, although they feel that their lives have been cut short, these girls still see themselves as better off than the adult prisoners, because they do not have children outside the prison walls. "If I had a child, I don't know what I'd do. I'd escape, or I'd go crazy," one young girl confesses.

The Flip Side of Things

The other women of La Esperanza are the educators who work there, doing hard work for poor wages and little recognition. To be hired, an educator must have finished, or at least be close to finishing, high school. The prison administration also looks for very centered, balanced people, with good human relations skills, lots of patience and ability to "love thy neighbor," given that this job is virtually that of an apostolate.

"We can't have conflictive persons here, or people with other problems of their own, because our work would just fall apart," explains Páez. A probation period was set up in order to get to know the employee more thoroughly, as well as to give her a chance to make sure she has the enthusiasm and will to do the job.

In any case, there are not many people who want to do this very difficult and poorly paid job. Shifts are 24 hours on, 72 hours off. On shift, the educators are under tremendous pressure because of the nature of the work and the problems constantly arising among the inmates. Some of them are founders of La Esperanza, others of the National Prison System when women prisoners were housed at Tipitapa, and others are new to the system. All have been working with women rejected by society for several years, as a labor of love, and for ridiculously low wages.

Solidarity Among Women

"We are women ourselves, and we must offer them our solidarity," says Páez. "When I'm at home at night, playing with my little boy or helping him with his homework, I think of the prisoners and my heart just stops." It is also difficult to watch the children when it comes time to leave on visiting days. "Seeing those little kids holding onto their mothers for dear life just rips you apart. I'm a mother too, and I know how I would feel in her place."

But there are also many times when everything changes and the prison authorities have to be firm and establish authority. La Esperanza's "re-educators" not guards or wardens do not use arms or clubs. There are no bars on the windows, and the prisoners have a certain degree of freedom of movement. The re-educators are trained to treat the prisoners with respect, without insults or obscenities. Many of the prisoners initially interpret this attitude as an expression of weakness, and they respond quite aggressively. "You really need self control and patience in order not to treat them the way they treat you, particularly the new arrivals," says Páez.

Ana María Espinoza is a founder of La Esperanza and a truly capable woman. Her oldest son is 25. She is a seamstress. She worked in a textile factory for many years, but she wanted to serve her country in another area and thus became an educator in the prison. Her previous experience allows her to teach the prisoners a trade that will benefit them once they are released. As she spoke with envío, she arranged the products already finished by the inmates, getting them ready for packaging and distribution. Several yards beyond where she was seated, where the conversation could not be heard due to distance and a radio playing full blast, the prisoners continued their work, while several pairs of large, very sharp scissors veritable mortal weapons passed from hand to hand in the course of the work.

"Sometimes they use those scissors to wreck what's been sewn, to destroy the fabric; they ruin the pieces that are given to us and that we must give back, just for the sake of damaging something," Espinoza lamented. Asked if that happened frequently, she replied, "No, of course not. Those who pick fights are the minority. But you should see the problems they can cause. Of course there are others who make the effort and really do learn. You only have to show them something once, because they're really trying. Or like one of the women over there right now; she said she couldn't run the big machines, and I said, 'well, you're going to learn. If you need to, you spend a whole day on one little thing. If you do it poorly, take it apart, and do it again.' And you should see how well she sews now. It's true that it took her a long time, but she learned."
These are the women who inspire Espinoza and her compañeras to continue this kind of work. And, as she herself says, they're the majority.

Freedom Dreamed Of

Once her sentence is up, the prisoner has "paid for her crime," "settled her debt with society," and is ready to return to freedom, with some new training, acquired discipline and new habits. But is society prepared to receive this person it expelled years before?
Some of the more fortunate women get support from their families when they are released, but they are a clear minority. Based on the frequency of family visits, it is fairly easy to tell who will have this good luck. The majority return to the same environment that they left, usually finding it in even worse shape. Many find their partners still at home, but with other women and the children nowhere in sight, because the new woman is not interested in taking care of someone else's children.

If they find their house intact, they find it empty, without furniture or the few items they were able to accumulate, thanks to the fact that their neighbors and friends, in as bad economic shape as the women themselves, have taken their possessions. The original intention, of course, is to take care of them, but rarely are they returned.

As for finding work, if things were bad when they were first imprisoned, the situation now, after several years of economic structural adjustment policies, is much worse. And, with thousands of unemployed people on the job market, who is going to hire someone with a criminal record? Who will offer a job to a woman who was imprisoned for theft? Or homicide?

A Model and a Question

Two Christian authorities who do pastoral work in prisons throughout the world recently visited Nicaragua. Father Peña brought them to La Esperanza, without warning anybody of the visit, so that they would be able to see life in the prison with their own eyes. Both were very impressed with what they saw.

They called the center "the best women's prison in Latin America." The best in the sense of the most humane, where real options for rehabilitation are offered the prisoners. Nonetheless, it is worth considering the possibility of a "better" prison, in the same sense that one considers a "better" migraine or a "better" toothache. The best prison would be one that doesn't exist, because it is not needed.

According to Vilma Núñez, criminologists are coming to the conclusion that prisons do not resolve anything, because people wind up there due to circumstances out of their control: an atmosphere of total economic and moral poverty that does not allow for any other option, or an unfortunate accident in which fate has more influence than imprudence. Specialists say that born criminals are few, and hold that most are the product of their environments. Thus, it is the environment that must be transformed, rather than merely locking up its victims. What is needed, then, is a more just and balanced society.

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