• March 23, 2015

With the Heart of a Child:
Visits to a Chilean women’s prison

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.”

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