This morning we entered the prison. This afternoon we left the prison. During one brief day, our small team cared for 93 women and provided a few happy moments to about 50 young moms and their little children.
I was there as a translator, working with a nurse practitioner. Our first patient was Lucita, a woman in her late 40's. Her body was framed by a red metal wheelchair. A white cloth was tied around a small dressing which the practitioner carefully removed by sprinkling a little water on the sticky gauze. "I bumped my leg. This sore won't heal. I can't control my bladder. I can't feel my hand. I am very worried about my sight, I can't see well and it is getting worse." One arm had been amputated near the elbow. One leg had already been lost. The worry on her face was justified. After years of living with untreated diabetes, there was nothing we could do to save her leg. She needs a miracle.
The quality of life for a woman in the women's prison in Ilopango is dictated by the visits they receive and the gifts which the visitors bring. On Tuesdays and Fridays, loved ones are allowed to come into the prison for brief visits between 8 am and 3 pm. On the Tuesday morning of our visit, it was clear that family members had lined up outside the main gate along the busy truck route through Ilopango. A few boyfriends, a few sisters, and hundreds of gray-haired mothers and grandmothers stood in the warm morning sun, crowded against one another, crowded against the fence, balancing bags of food and baby clothes on their heads or clutching them in their arms. The first twenty or so are counted off and allowed to enter the area just inside the main gate. Here they wait in line, as we did, to go through security. No phones. No cameras. Nothing with a memory card is allowed. After turning over a DUI (identification card) or passport (in our case), one by one the visitors pass through the metal detector. The majority of Salvadoran visitors, if not all, passed on to an X-ray machine where first they sat (to detect anything hidden within their body), and then they placed their heads on a shelf - first one side and then the other - to make sure nothing was hidden in their mouths or ears. One of our team has an artificial hip, so he was given the X-ray experience. The rest of us were not.
As a brigade of five Salvadoran Lutheran Church pastors, a Salvadoran physician and four US team members, we received special treatment. We had pre-registered the contents of our big pink medication suitcase. The pastors carried black trash bags full of new toys for children. The bags were dumped out, the items counted. The suitcase was not unpacked, although the lotion and hand sanitizer used by our reflexologist momentarily caused concern. The assistant director of the prison and the security personnel were very kind, very appreciative, and very attentive. As our items were inspected by a team of three guards, another guard inspected bags of food and items of clothing brought in by family members. Each bag of pureed beans or bright red refresco or shredded vegetables was thoroughly squeezed. We received final clearance and walked a little ways into a palm-shaded courtyard. Colorful playground equipment, flowers and colorful foliage, green grass and a small gazebo created the illusion of a park, complete with two blue canopies which provided shade for about 100 white plastic chairs. We had a plan to see 100 of the oldest women in the prison. There are more than 2000 women who are incarcerated here.
We took our positions: the pastors at a small white table adorned with candles and a few Bibles in one corner for the spiritual healing station; the pharmacy set up at a wooden table under the gazebo; the reflexology center set up with four red plastic chairs in the shade near the playground; the nurse practitioner and doctor at small white tables in front of the rows of chairs. The women began to file in. They were grandmas with patterned skirts and blouses, middle-aged women wearing skirts or jeans, shiny big earrings and bold make-up. There were a few younger women, allowed to see us because they were very sick. A photo of the scene might suggest women were enjoying a morning in the park or grandmothers were gathered to listen to a school concert. "It's a different world over there," a pastor suggested, as he pointed to a hallway and a series of strong metal gates.
One by one the women filed up to see us, creating a trailing movement of the women into the next seats like a giant caterpillar moving forward. What is your name? How old are you? Tell me about your health. How can we best help you today?
The illnesses were described as expected. Diabetes and hypertension, treated with medication if family members can afford to purchase it at a private pharmacy and bring it into the prison on visiting days. Many had yeast infections. Almost all had stomach problems. Diarrhea runs rampant among the women and the babies. Ear infections, sore throats, flu, hot flashes, migraines and itchy skin. We wrote "prescriptions" for those with severe pain to receive a reflexology foot massage. One woman asked for a mask because she was allergic to the cottonwood tree which filled the air with white fuzz. One young woman's skin was horribly marked and peeling - systemic scabies infection. "We do cleaning campaigns," said the prison doctor (a lively and slim young women with straight light red hair), "but it is impossible to get rid of the scabies because everyone sleeps so close together." Some of the women had tattoos. Every single one of them gave a hug and a kiss. We love you. God bless you. You are angels from another country.
The women are not allowed to keep their own medications. We brought triple-copy forms - we kept the white copy for our records and so we could fill prescriptions for medications which we did not bring into the prison, the yellow copy was kept inside of each woman's labeled bag, and the pink copy is the woman's receipt for her medications, which are distributed each day. As the women passed from their consultas to the spiritual healing area to reflexology and finally to the pharmacy, a big pile of plastic bags with pink and red hearts on them and yellow forms shining through began to fill the big pink suitcase. We had assembled valentine bags for the women. They were allowed to keep their toothbrushes and toothpaste which had been in the bags, leaving the bags behind with their medications inside. The prison psychologist and an helper assisted our team member so that each woman could be attended to in a caring manner after she had patiently waited in line.
The prison doctor works 4 hours per day, 5 days per week. Her colleague works a similar schedule. The pediatrician works 3 full days a week. These doctors and a dentist joined us in the later morning, making it possible for us to finish the exams by 1 pm. Our medications were essentially gone. We gathered for lunch with the prison staff at a long table which was covered with blue and white table clothes, giving it the appearance of the Salvadoran flag. We ate carne asada, (beef with sauteed onions and peppers in a light gravy), rice, sliced radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes and beets. We drank small bottles of grape soda.
As we ate, prison staff carried large pots of coffee past our table, carrying them down a dimly lit, peach-colored hallway which led to two blue-painted metal gates. I asked if I could be permitted to look into the B block area just beyond the gates. As I peered into the area, the women, mostly very young, smiled with curiosity. Some had finished eating and were changing clothes, or sitting on their mats reading or chatting. The mats were thin - some made of woven grasses, some of foam, each woman's personal space consists the area occupied by her mat. A little blanket, a pillow, make-up, clothes, all on the mat. Hundreds of woman in a tiny space. Another world. Some of the women were still lined up to receive their plates of food and cups of gritty coffee. The plates had a bit of salad and some rice on them. We had heard earlier that the women usually receive plain rice and plain beans.
After lunch the young mothers with babies and preschool children were invited into the courtyard. Children are allowed to live with their mothers in the maternity block at the prison. Diapers are sorely needed, especially because the children have diarrhea. The mothers said they wrap toilet paper around and around their babies because they have nothing else. Without visitors, babies do not have diapers. The pharmacist told us that there is no medicine for children. Mothers often send their babies out with a relative to stay for a while and get medical care, then the babies come back.
Our team gathered in front of the rows of excited little ones and their moms. The nurse practitioner and I started singing and playing with a couple of little plastic tambourines. Soon the pastors were leading songs, and then some kids came up to join in as leaders. Then one of the moms came forward to help teach us a song. Everyone sang and laughed and did the dance motions. Then the toys were distributed to the children. Our time was up, and just like that we were ushered out of the courtyard and out through security and out to the place where our day had begun. No more lines of people - visiting hours were over. In a small glass case at the prison entrance, guests can purchase crocheted and embroidered items made by the women.
Later this week, the nurse practitioner and I will return to the prison to bring medications for the women who need them, as well as many medications to place into the prison pharmacy. The women might be surprised to see us. No one every does what they say they will do.
We never asked any of the women to tell us why they are in prison, and none of them shared their stories. Yet, we can't help but wonder ... who is that 87 year old great grandma with the pretty white hair, lightly wrinkled face and great wit? Why is she here?