This week, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky presents a five-part series featuring stories of women and girls in Bolivia and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It’s called Ground Shifters: Stories of Women Changing Unseen Worlds.
Today, we travel to a women’s prison in La Paz, Bolivia. Rather than a high-security industrial complex, this prison takes the form of a miniature city — with shops, businesses, a school and even a union. We find out how its female inmates are exercising their rights to organize and improve their communal home.
Just past the security screening rooms, the women’s Central Correctional Facility in La Paz, Bolivia expands into an open air courtyard. It looks like anything but a prison. Women – not wearing jumpsuits or uniforms of any kind – manage kiosks and stalls, or sit knitting in front of classrooms.
Young kids, who live inside with their moms, run down passageways and weave around my legs out into the yard. Briseida Paredes is a wide-eyed beauty who looks decades younger than a grandmother of two. S he says the prison is designed like a hacienda or spacious ranch.
"The only security we have are the four towers and the door," says Briseida, through a translator. "Over there are the shared dormitories. Also, there are a variety of courses offered for inmates for free like accounting, baking, knitting, embroidery. There’s a laundry facility—we offer that service for people outside the jail. There are those of us who wash dishes, wash clothes, clean the classrooms. Everyone makes their own way here."
That’s lot to take in. No individual cells and women who earn their own keep inside. Almost nothing meshes with my idea of prison. Especially Breseida’s title: President of the Consejo de Delegadas, or delegate council, a representative body most akin to an inmate union.
"Of course, we have to work jointly with the national penitentiary system as well as the local government," she says. "Also with the prison health system. I’m not the boss here. There is a warden and everything has to be done according to procedure. In this coordinated way, we address judicial matters, as well as medical attention for the kids; any and all internal issues inside the facility."
13 reps elected by the areas where they sleep, six more at large – to be in charge of education, work and recreation. Then, a Vice President and La Presidente. They run in yearly elections. One inmate, one vote, via secret ballot. Despite what Briseida says, these elected representatives make the prison hum. They hold classes and help inmates stay with their schooling. They arrange for donations from charity organizations for the kids, and make sure the businesses run smoothly.
They even coordinate soccer matches with visitors. Lucia Choque is a dorm delegate. She’s indigenous Aymara. Two thick long braids hang down her back.
"My name is Lucia Choque and I’ve been here for one year and one month," she says. "I’m the representative from dorm 11. Each dormitory delegate helps to organize the activities like the Christmas communal meals and decorations. Sometimes the new girls don’t understand how this all works. They think they are still on the outside but things are different here. I explain that in the dorms, they can’t bring in outside bags, can’t bring in food or anything like that. They don’t always listen so I have to be on top of them, reminding them again and again."
Hours past roll call, the women and kids are free to roam until 8 clock tonight, when they must be back in the dorms. Briseida is working—the prisoners are making sweet bread to raise money for infrastructure improvements and she’s managing the process. It’s clear that these women find nothing unusual about being organized.
We’re in Bolivia – where unionization is a foundation of society. Everyone—from the shoe shine boys, to the farmers, to the domestic workers, have their representative organization.
"Everywhere around the world, people organize: in the workers unions, in professional associations, in mother’s clubs. Why not in a jail?," Briesida asks. "We, too, are a part of society. We have needs just like everyone else. Teachers demanding a raise protest and make themselves heard. This is the same thing, but we ask for better food, better medical facilities, better infrastructure. Since we are part of society, we have the same rights as those on the outside. The only right that’s been taken away from us is freedom of movement. Every other one is intact."
Intact is right — and these women don’t take them for granted.
"About a month and a half ago we had a strike because we only had 50 gas canisters for cooking and those 50 weren’t enough for the prison’s three kitchens," Briseida recalls. "So what did we do first? We followed procedure and sent a request letter. That was ignored so we called a state of emergency and refused to stand for roll call. The last resort is the hunger strike. At first, we had about 30 women striking. During a strike, you can’t stand for roll call or work. The only thing we drank was coca and chamomile tea and we only ate throat lozenges. That strike lasted 4 days and now we have 75 gas canisters."
Briseida makes it sound so easy. But it’s hard being a leader in this environment. Constant threats from the guards and gangs or factions form easily. You have to know how to deal with all kinds of personalities, says la Presidenta.
"Here there are all people from all over," she points out. "There are some from the rural areas. Others are educated professionals so you have to mediate their different life experiences and perspectives. But all humans, whether free or in prison, learn new things until the day we die. We always keep on learning."
Finding a voice, cultivating a leader
Some of that learning comes through being a delegada. On the outside, none of the current reps were political women. Virginia Condori is young and soft-spoken, and is dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. Like 80% of Bolivia’s prison population, she’s a “preventiva” – meaning she’s being held preventatively while waiting for trial. Legally there’s a 6 month cap on preventative detention. But that’s not reality. She’s been here for over year and has yet to come before a judge.
Yet, she’s not bitter. Instead, she’s productive. She’s working on her accounting degree and now she’s the representative for education—a post she says taught her more lessons than the classroom.
"One of those has been that I’ve lost my fear of speaking in front of others, of expressing myself," she says. "I remember the first time. Someone told me – you have to make an announcement about a human rights workshop and you have to tell everyone during roll call. I stepped out to give the announcement and I turned red. You know you stand in front of everyone and all the compañeras are looking at you. I thought to myself, maybe I’m not saying it right. But with time I lost that fear. This has all helped me to develop, speak more often, express myself better. I wasn’t this kind of person before."
It’s this personal evolution that may matter almost as much as winning a strike. Nicole Zamora Paredes is Briseida’s middle child. Only 20 years old herself, she brought her toddler son in for a visit. She’s got her mother’s eyes, and the same strong sense of self. She says the delegada system is the best rehabilitation opportunity the prison offers.
"Years ago my mom was immature," Nicole recalls. "She liked to be out dancing, out wherever with her friends. Not anymore. She is a much more mature person now. This has allowed her to reflect, study, understand family, to value many things. I think my mom is doing great. She has changed a lot and for the better."
This personal growth is small compensation for the fact that this is still prison. No union can change that. Women must walk past the foul-smelling solitary confinement chamber dozens of times daily. Guards beat and bribe the prisoners at will. And of course, while many of these women still live with their kids, they miss those treasured parent moments—like watching your child graduate from primary school, or playing together in a park. Life is a concrete hacienda.
Inmates in this facility, like most around the country, are mainly here for petty drug charges. Others are in for contraband—bringing in untaxed second hand clothes or cars to sell in open air markets. Debt too can land you some time. Women have an added complication—their husbands exploits. You’d never see a man locked up for his wife’s crimes, but the opposite happens.
"I am here because for being an accomplice, I guess they call it," says Lucia. "They killed my husband and my son is in San Pedro prison. But they don’t let me leave here, not even to visit my son. They’ve taken everything of mine. It’s been a year and one month. I am not sentenced yet so I don’t know when I’ll ever get out. There are so many of us, preventivas. There is no quick justice here. I’ve had 5 different lawyers, 2 of them took my money and did nothing. Now I don’t have anything left."
Today, visitors are streaming in. But not for everyone. So many women here are shunned by the world the minute they are swallowed by these high walls. I see Virginia’s sadness as she watches Briseida play with her grandson. She tells me she doesn’t have a family. Yet again, the education delegada finds the positive.
"Here is where you find your real friends," says Virginia. "Outside, people just say to you: how much do you have, how much are you worth. When you have money, everyone is your friend, your family. When something bad happens to you, no-one is there for you economically or emotionally. Here is where you find your real family because we support each other in the best and worst of times. We motivate each other. Sometimes we cry and we console one another. Or sometimes you cry and they cry along with you."
I wonder if Briseida’s and Virginia’s and Lucia’s personal growth, has to do with the their insulated female world. These intimate bonds, among only women, lead to the extraordinary. It’s getting on in the afternoon and things are winding down. The aroma of dinner preparations wafts down the passageways. Briseida is saying goodbye to her family. Normally non-chalant about her organization’s achievements, she gets reflective, sharing one last story.
"A few months ago, there was a problem with a warden here," says Briseida. "She had mismanaged money from the laundry service and that money is ours. She wanted to shut us up about it. We have to have a full revolt to get her out of here because it’s not right that people come here and live off the work of the prisoners and abuse their authority. I was chained in my cell, they didn’t let me go to the bathroom or receive visits. I spent 15 days in the hole. They completely violated my rights. We demanded a hearing and I was let go and then everything turned around. Now the warden has a pending charge against her via the Ministry of Corruption and Transparency. Imagine that! Where in any other part of the world do you see a prisoner, a delinquent as they call us, launch a case against a warden? It’s like a utopia. It’s illogical. That shows that we have rights and values, even as prisoners we have our principles. And especially us as women because it’s us women who continue to be mothers, pillars of our families. I mean we’re the ones who always wear the pants in this world, right?"
The story is part of a weeklong series on the lives of women and girls in Bolivia and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico called Ground Shifters: Stories of Women Changing Unseen Worlds. The series is a collaboration between WBEZ and the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media at Columbia College-Chicago.
Series Executive Producer, Steve Bynum. Series Producer/Creative Advisor, Jane Saks