So, imagine this. You are in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. You are with eight other people, who you feel you can trust, but you only met them five days ago. You are all led into a dank cement block room, a thick metal door clanks shut behind you. A female guard pats you down and stamps your arm. Then another guard takes your passport and puts another stamp on your arm.
You walk through a room with shower heads on wall – where the inmates are no doubt strip-searched and showered before they are incarcerated. Another metal door clangs shut.
Your group walks up a flight of metal stairs and you stiffly walk across a wide balcony. Below you, in an outdoor courtyard, male inmates are watching. A few shout up to you and for once you are happy you don’t know the language.
You enter a dark hallway, trying like everything to slow your breathing.
Then suddenly you are out a door and an almost surrealistic scene greets you. A few dozen women are mingling in an open air court, cement walls, two stories tall, on all four sides. The women are hanging up laundry, sewing and working on crafts. They laugh and most of them don’t even look up at you. The ones who do look up at you are the children, all under age five. They come running up to you and a few of them start playing with Henry, Angelina and Harrietta, the volunteers who have all been here before.
Tina, Meg, Gayle and I just look at each other. This is as far out of our comfort zone as we ever imagined we would be.
It was the last full day of my volunteer trip to Ayacucho, Peru, in 2009, and we have arrived at the prison to take eight of the boys and girls out for the morning.
Up until age five, they allow the children to live in the prison, in their mothers’ cells with them. That is rather sad; what kind of life is that for these little ones. The truly sad part though is that someone decided that when they turn five years old, prison life is no longer right for them, or they are old enough to live without their mothers. So these kids are taken out of the prison, perhaps the only home they’ve ever known, and given to relatives to live with or if there are no relatives who will take them in, they go to the orphanage until their mothers are released.
To break up their routine, we each were assigned one child, we loaded them into the bus with us, and drove back to the Plaza. They chased pigeons and ate popsicles, and at least for a short time acted like they led normal lives.
When we brought them back to the prison and all the kids were accounted for, our passports were returned to us. And one final note. If you are wondering what the women are in prison for, most of them were charged with running drugs, one of the most lucrative occupations in Peru.With Willmar, the little lamb I was assigned and that I guarded with my life.