Our day began on a chilly morning with a detailed tour of San Joaquin. Jessica, the head guard who has been spearheading our work at the prison, showed us new parts of the prison and allowed us to conduct focus groups with mothers and their children.
First, we learned that about half of the women work in the prison. They earn a Chilean minimum wage, working such jobs as assembling electrical appliances and sewing box-spring covers. 15% of the women’s salary goes into savings for when she is released, 15% goes to spending money, and the rest goes directly to her children. They work for about 8 hours a day and many take classes at night. The women who work live in bunk style bedrooms and are able to walk around the prison. An exercise room where Zumba classes occasionally take place, a cafeteria, and classrooms are amongst the places women who have good behavior can be found when there is time. Religion is a major part of many of the women’s lives.
Next we entered Patio 1, a secure portion of the prison where 95 re-offenders and violent offenders live. No guards are ever stationed inside this portion of the prison and the door is always locked unless it is time for a woman to be escorted to visitation. One of the most striking aspects of this portion of the prison was viewing where the women sleep. There are three long hallways which are shared by about 30 women, and each woman has a bunk about equivalent to the size of a full size mattress. Privacy is obtained by hanging sheets from the ceiling. It was described to us as a ‘jungle’ and violence and sexual abuse is common among Patio 1 inhabitants. This group of women were scheduled for visitation today and we were able to observe this in the gym, which is the space where all families share the visits. All of the families brought food and shared a meal together and many were embraced with hugs, smiles, and laughter.
The second half of our day was spent conducting our focus group with three mothers and five children. We shared lunch and heard their opinions and experiences with the visitation process. The frustrations seemed to be concentrated around problems with the physical space of the gym, safety and security of the children throughout the entire visitation process, the invasion of the strip-search process, and the inconsistent and unclear rules on what is acceptable to wear and bring into the prison.
Each adult entering the prison must undergo a strip search in which the person is searched for contraband, mainly cell phones and drugs. Women must pull up their shirts and pull down their pants in an open space, which has been explained as invading and degrading. Additionally it is an overall disturbing experience for both the adults who are forced to undergo this process and for the children who witness this due in part to the confinements of space and lack of supervision. Children described what the process is like for them through art based directives and a group action centered gridding exercise. Common themes from the children were that they were happy to see their moms but worried they would not be let into the prison due to unclear food and clothing guidelines. They also noted that they were afraid of the search process and when the guards yell.
Overall the women and children we met and worked with seemed willing to share their experiences with us. The mothers and children seemed so happy to spend time together and it was wonderful to engage in this experience with them. Despite the language barriers, we learned many things about the numerous functions and complexities within the prison and the fears and hopes of the women and children who know firsthand what this experience is like. We hope to learn and share more about this over the upcoming days.
Written by Elyse Casey, Boston College School of Social Work