February 27, 2011
Mexican women imprisoned in the highlands of Chiapas struggle over scarce resources in crowded rooms. The nights are cold and the days are long. One woman says she’s learned to read and write and make paper flowers to sell.
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)–“Sleep little one, sleep,” whispers Adela Perez as her 5-month-old son, Enrique, cries. “It’s better to sleep because the day is long. Sleep, Enrique, sleep.”
She rubs his little back with her dark, dry hands.
“Stop crying, please,” she says, pacing around the small patio, afraid of being reprimanded by the cellblock guards or by one of her 45 “housemates.”
“They’re going to yell at us. Shut up, please. I don’t want problems with the others.”
Perez, 23, is serving a 10-year sentence for a crime she asks not to discuss and which she says she didn’t commit.
She is in the women’s area of State Readaptation and Prevention Center No. 5, called Cereso 5, 20 kilometers outside of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state with high levels of poverty and a large indigenous population.
Perez gave birth in prison, two years after meeting co-inmate Manuel Perez, Enrique’s father, who is serving time for robbery in the men’s section of the center.
There are 15 incarceration centers in Chiapas, which house more than 3,500 prisoners. Consolidated in 2006, just three of these correctional centers, located in Cintalapa, Tapachula and San Cristobal, have wards for women. Inmates say the consolidation has caused overcrowding and moved many female inmates far from their familial support networks.
Time Passes Slowly
For the 46 women and three children who live in Cereso 5, time passes slowly. The days are punctuated by occasional conflicts stemming from cultural differences, scant resources and overcrowding.
“Life here is really hard for me and my baby,” Perez says. “We are cold a lot and we get sick.”
Cereso 5 is located in the highlands, where temperatures drop very low in the winter, making hot water and warm clothing essential for the inmates. The correctional center provides women with small buckets and two electric-coil hot water heaters to share.
“There are only two heaters, so if you want to bathe with warm water, you have to stand in line,” says Perez, who has been in the prison for three years.
Beds are also in short supply. There are only 30 sleeping spaces for 46 women. At least 15 inmates share the 1-by-2-meter concrete slab beds, says lawyer Martha Figueroa, a women’s rights advocate who visits the prison to conduct workshops on self-esteem and relationships.
The prisoners at Cereso 5 cook their own meals on five stoves and a hotplate, so competition for the equipment often causes tensions.
“We cook our own food, but because there are a lot of us, it’s hard because there aren’t many stoves,” says Perez, looking at Enrique, finally asleep. “You have to wait in line to use one.”
Figueroa agrees that the shortage of stoves causes problems among the inmates.
“El Cereso doesn’t provide a cafeteria, but we do give them a small monthly stipend of about 20 pesos, about $2, a day so that they can buy food to cook,” says Rodolfo del Pino Estrada, former director of Cereso 5.
Del Pino Estrada maintains that the women’s area of the prison is not overcrowded and that problems exist among inmates simply because they cannot “get along,” not because they compete for resources.
“Of course, there are problems amongst [the women],” he says. “Problems because, ‘You took my pot. You took my frying pan. It’s your turn to take the trash out.’ But these are just problems of living together. They aren’t serious problems.”
He says the conflicts could have cultural roots.
“We have communication problems,” he says of the indigenous populations among the inmates. “Many [inmates] don’t understand Spanish well and they can’t communicate amongst themselves, so they create groups and problems.”
Although he downplays the tensions, conflicts can turn serious between inmates, resulting in consequences such as relocation to prisons in other parts of the state.
Fabiola Mendez, 28, was transferred to Cereso 5 from the Tapachula prison in 2007 after she was found to have drugs in prison. Mendez, who was already serving a 10-year sentence for drug smuggling between Guatemala and Mexico, says a cellmate planted the drugs on her clothing.
Mendez says she has seen the same problems in both prisons. Overcrowding and competition for necessities were also common in the Tapachula prison, where about 148 women share 120 beds, she says.
She says the hardest part of her transfer to San Cristobal is that she is now 210 kilometers away from Tapachula, an eight-hour journey from her family’s home.
“I am going to be here another seven years,” she says, crying. “I’m far away from my mother and three children.”
But there are positive aspects to life at Cereso 5 that inmates say they are grateful for. Perez says that she has learned to read and write since she first came to prison. She has also learned a trade–making paper flowers that family members can sell for her outside the prison so she can make extra money.