Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Impact ~ Ecuador ~ Inside Prison Walls

February 28, 2012

Staff writer Valerie Davis blogs from Ecuador

It was an eerie feeling as we lined up single file and walked in silence toward the prison guard’s station. I surrendered my passport and watched the guard slap it onto the stack with everyone else’s. Then he stamped my right wrist with blue ink.

We were led through another gate past a garden of potted flowers and into a courtyard of sorts. Actually it is the remains of a former basketball court with a rusted goalpost still standing at one end, minus the metal rim and net.

The reality of where we are jabbed me when I looked up. It’s a sobering view. Concrete walls 12 feet high, coils of barbed wire, armed men watching warily from the rooftop.

It’s our first day in Ecuador distributing Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes to children around the capital city of Quito. The morning distribution was a traditional one, like dozens I have experienced over the past eight years. A modest church sanctuary. Children clapping to the beat of the praise and worship music. Jubilant voices when the gifts are opened.

But here on this slab of broken concrete, children wear solemn expressions as they start to file in. The youngest among them are accompanied by their mothers. One toddler clings to his mother’s hand. Another mom cradles her baby girl, wrapped snugly in a bright pink blanket.

From an upstairs window, a woman’s voice bellows obscenities. More angry shouts follow.

Another gentle reminder that this isn’t a playground. It is a prison. And for these children who know no other way of life, it is home.

The 130 women who live inside these prison walls were convicted of crimes that run the gamut—simple theft, prostitution, drug dealing, manslaughter. Their children often have no one else to care for them, so they become cellmates for weeks, months, sometimes years.

Until recently, boys and girls remained here with their mothers until they reached 18 years of age. Now when they enter their teen years, they are sent to children’s homes.

Forty children currently live in the prison. At one time the number was as high as 200.

As disturbing as that sad reality may be, it was equally moving to observe how attentive the mothers were toward their little ones throughout the Operation Christmas Child program. One mom, holding a toddler in her arms, tenderly bent down to tie a loose shoelace on one of his sneakers. Another showed the patience of a saint when her son became fussy and started to cry. She didn’t get angry. Instead she soothed him with a kiss on the cheek and a hug.

Whatever their crimes, these are mothers who love their children dearly.

Halfway through this afternoon’s program, the event took on a new tone. The somberness lifted. These children, like their counterparts at the church distribution earlier in the day, began to sing and clap their hands too. A few of the moms joined in.

The only shouts heard were the occasional outbursts of elation when a child opened his or her shoe box and saw what was inside. And the stoic guards, well, even they couldn’t hold back smiles.

I spoke to a woman named Jenny, whose 9-month-old son received a shoe box. She is serving a two-year sentence for breaking and entering and robbery. Donato is not her only child. She has five. Two live in the prison with her. The three older children live with their grandmother.

“Thank you for this gift,” she told me. “Because you came here, we know you care. We know you care about our children. Please remember us.”

I had to fight back tears. We usually think of the shoe boxes as gifts primarily meant for the children. But today I saw how much they blessed the grown-ups too—the mothers, the prison guards, and us.

I was able to walk out of that prison yard freely. I got my passport back, and I covered up the ugly blue ink stamp with the sleeve of my sweatshirt.

These women can’t cover up the stains that have marked their lives. Their children can’t so easily either. But we did tell them about the One who does offer grace, forgiveness, and second chances.

I pray a remarkable transformation takes place in the prison in the coming weeks and months. Maybe these women needed to hear someone say that their lives do count for something. That Jesus loves them. Perhaps after today they will become free in a way they never imagined.

They owe it to their children. They owe it to themselves. 

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