Day 3: 3 surprising first impressions of San Joaquin

BC students go through security before their visit to San Joaquin.
BC students go through security before their visit to San Joaquin.

“Don’t forget your passport” was the first direction we heard today from our project coordinator in Santiago. Today was our first visit to San Juaquin, the largest women’s prison in South America and the prison for whom we have been researching mother-child attachment and approaches to the visitation process.

After all our time researching and the information we had gained from outside resources and even the prison itself, I had developed some assumptions about the prison, some of which turned out to be completely wrong after visiting the prison itself and learning from the people who work there.

Here are 3 surprising first impressions of San Jaoquin, the women’s prison you will be hearing a lot more of in the coming days:

  1. There are 630 women in the prison. This may sound uninteresting to you until you learn that our research had suggested the prison was populated from anywhere between 300 and 1700 inmates. We had no idea what we were walking into. But we learned today that this number is divided into a various sections within the prison, including a catholic section which we visited today. The two largest sections are a labor section in which women work most of the day, and a “COPA” section, for more serious offenders or those with behavioral issues.
  2. Prisoners wear street clothes. In the United States we are normalized to seeing prisoners in uniform, from the traditional black stripes to the orange of “Orange is the New Black” – but in this prison I was surprised by the causalness of the atmosphere of the prison, especially after learning about the austerity measures involved in their visitation process (specifically the strip search methods we have been invited to address). Women are not in uniform. And through an open door in the catholic section, we could see a TV set up next to a bunk. The women themselves, playing on playground-style (non electronic) exercise machines, seemed quite friendly and not unused to visitors in their midst.
  3. The dedication of the guards. We were moved by the passion shown by Jessica, the head guard who gave us a tour of San Joaquin. She explained how children experience one of two emotions upon their visit to the prison: either they leave in tears or feel as if they have visited an amusement park. This wave of emotion is not supportive of healthy child development, which is acknowledged by Jessica and her team. The rupture of the relationship between incarcerated mothers and their children “causes pain for us both,  guards and mothers.” The care Jessica and other prison staff feel for inmates and their families was such a pleasant surprise, and one that will certainly help make this project rewarding and help implement a more sustainable solution.

Today we were able to correct our preformed assumptions and learn a bit more about the perspective of prison staff. Tomorrow we will hear from mothers and children about their experiences directly.

Post written by Alissa Marchant, Boston College School of Social Work. 

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