by Raque Freile, Ecuadorian volunteer in Chile
“Every week we visit a women’s correctional facility here in Valparaiso. The toughness of the environment and the women’s apparent mistrust made it difficult for me at the beginning. However, after some months, the visits have become a real blessing in my life.
The inmates are separated into four groups: the accused (women awaiting their sentencing), those on good behavior, those who habitually misbehave, and mothers with children under one year of age. Babies live in the facility with their mums until age one, when they are taken by a family member or placed in a foster home. When we arrive, the women are usually sitting on the patio of their unit, which is too small to be comfortable all day. We simply sit with them, either in groups or one-on-one, and listen to them with an attentive ear. They tell us about their suffering, about how painful it is to be here, about how they got here, and their plans for the future. These simple encounters have led me to discover that beauty can be found everywhere, even where I least expected it — inside a prison!
How can I describe the beauty of their generosity? Though they have very little, many do not hesitate to offer us something: a mate, a Coke or coffee. They even offer us a portion of their lunch! Some, like our dear friend Señora Margaret, who recently passed away, would even set a nice table and arrange some improvised curtains around it to make us feel more at home. She would always say a blessing before eating and a thanksgiving prayer after the meal.
Also, how can I convey the magic we shared when, during our last visit, we discovered someone had drawn a hopscotch game on the floor? In no time, there we were, missionaries and inmates, hopping on one foot and laughing at the bad tosses or at those stepping on the line. I was amazed to see that, although they have been beaten bitterly by life, they had not lost the simplicity of a child’s heart! What a blessing to realize that their inner beauty and dignity is as big or even bigger than mine. Deep down, nothing distinguishes them from me. I will be forever thankful for the opportunity to carry out this ministry in the women’s prison in Valparaiso, one of the greatest experiences of my life.”