Grace is a North American citizen that moved to Peru many years ago. Under circumstances that we do not discuss here, she was imprisoned for 34 months in a women’s prison in Lima. She has accepted to talk to us about her experience and life in jail. Thank you, Grace.
I came to Peru when I was about 17 years old with an exchange group. I was still in high school so I went back to the States to finish. I became engaged to the boy I met the first time I was in Peru so I came back when I was twenty on a permanent basis. My studies in law where done here in Peru, my practice law as well. I will not discuss the circumstances that led me to prison: what is most interesting is what I had to go through. The trial itself is still ongoing, and my rules of conduct prevent me to talk about it.
I was sent to prison and many people at all levels including prison officers were in total agreement on one thing: my case is political. I turned myself in as soon as I knew about the problem. I was sure there would be a way of proving transparency. The fact that I was not running away was evidence enough that detention order should have been revoked, according to the law. I am a lawyer, therefore I know that. I knew that by turning myself in they could keep me there one or two weeks, and everybody thought the same. It was not that way. I was there for over 34 months on charges of illicit association to receive child support for my daughter and as an accomplice to corruption.
I must admit that in jail I was absolutely furious at all times. I am very tall, I am an imposing figure, and the fact of being blonde and blue-eyed kind of causes an impression on people here. It is kind of funny to say that the night I arrived all the girls that worked there lined up because they thought I was an official that had come to make an inspection.
I was well treated at all times. I am an educated person and you cannot scare me easily. They knew I was a lawyer. The judges ordered isolation as a security measure. This held for about two years, until the prison itself decided to discard and disregard the judges’ order to mix in with the rest of the criminal population.
During two years I was in my little room on my own, I didn’t have to go out to the patio, I studied my studies in economics, they were giving me manuals and they were coming to prison from the university twice in a semester so I could take the exams. I was quite content, I had no complaints, and then one night I was called to the director’s office and I was told that I would be going into the pavilion with the rest of the internees the following day.
They turned me over into one of the prison floor. I was given a bed immediately. I was lucky, I never slept on the floor, which other people were doing. There were huge rooms separated into areas by the bunks. The lights were in the middle of the room, so in my section there was no light (my eyes are not as good as they used to be, of course), so between the noise and the racket that they made I had trouble reading my books and concentrating. One thing I do complain about is that they had absolutely no consideration on the fact that I was the only person that subscribed to this education program proposed in prison out of almost a thousand internees. Just for this they should have provided me with a quite area that would let me study in peace. This is the only complaint I have for the time I was there.
There used to be eighty to a hundred girls everywhere, sitting on the floor, under the beds, two to a bed, and for all of them there was only this one bathroom.
My case is perhaps a little different, it would not be considered a typical criminal case, I don’t think they even took it that way. I complied 100% with all the regulations and rules, I was an ideal prisoner, the guards that were looking after the place had a perfect relationship with me, someone would also come and ask an advice on different things, legal and personal advice. I had no problem with the director. I did my workshops; I was in the one that made crochet bags, I made tons of those.
To describe my day let me first explain how the area was: there are not rooms with bars. There is a long pavilion with bars at the end, and there are rooms inside this pavilion that are overcrowded and a big large room at the very hand that was originally designed as a dining room or meeting room. This space has been turned into a room where they square off different areas by using the bunks themselves.
In the morning I would be the first one at the gate, alongside with the girls that were supposed to do the cleaning. The prison rules require that during the first six months you are there you are responsible for a certain area that you must get up and clean at six thirty. Of course there are girls that are so poor that do the cleaning for a little money. In my case I never did. Actually when I was in prevention, back in my little room and I never went out, there was only one bathroom and it was also for the girls that were piled up in the huge room where they were received before being sent out to the different pavilions. There used to be eighty to a hundred girls everywhere, sitting on the floor, under the beds, two to a bed, and for all of them there was only this one bathroom. I had my family bring in the disinfecting material, and I would throw everybody out at six in the morning and I left it spick and span, and then would be the first one to take a shower. They were all happy.
When my children brought in a new toothbrush for me, someone would see, and they would line up to ask me if I could please give them my old one.
When I was in isolation I had one hour in the patio from 5 to 6 pm, when everyone was going back into the pavilion. At that time I would be let out and I had an hour to walk around, sit on the bench, make any phone calls, etc. Once into the block they opened the gate and everybody could go out at 6:30 in the morning. What I did was to be the first one out, run around for 50 minutes in circles, to exercise, run upstairs, get my bucket and shampoo, etc., run downstairs to take a shower – there were more showers downstairs, while upstairs there was one shower for 250 girls. There is no hot water in Santa Monica. But there are so many worries, you are thinking about trial, about your possibility of freedom, your family situation, what your children are doing, how your house is coming along, what is going on with the bank, etc…. at that point a cold shower is really the least of your problems!!
They would send breakfast along with two rolls and some kind of liquids: tea, coffee, quacker oats, every morning there was something different. You take breakfast and then go to your workshop. You are not allowed to go back to your room unless you have a medical reason. So you go to your group, which is pretty nice. Eventually I was happier outside than I was in isolation. I was with the girls, I had a best friend, a British girl, who was in prison on drugs charges. It was nice, we would spend the mornings in conversation, on the banks, drinking coffee. I had my own table brought in, I got permission and my daughter took one in for me because there is a lack of tables there. That was all I was asking for: a table!!
At one o’clock it was lunch time. There were kitchen duties of course. They had different shifts, there had ladies who could cook, that cooked for over a thousand people. They had huge pots to do so. I never did kitchen duties, I gave them to somebody else. Some women really need to get a bit of money. There are terrible stories, some of them have small children outside and they need money for them. I was the lucky one, I had all my needs satisfied, I used to prepare my shopping list and give it to my children on Sundays, but other women had absolutely nothing. They did not have enough money to send out so that the children could pay the bus to go and visit them. When my children brought in a new toothbrush for me, someone would see, and they would line up to ask me if I could please give them my old one. They do not even get toilet paper, let alone soap, shampoo, etc.
Lunch is brought to the rooms. They have huge pots, one for rice and one for the main dish. They had three people serving. They had wooden carts and they were pushing them to the different areas, and calling out the different rooms. You go out, take your food and go back inside and eat on your bed. Prison food is not that bad considering what they have to work with. They say that Santa Monica has the best food of the country prisons. But the girls knew how to prepare it. On Tuesdays we had our special with chicken, but other than that we had rice, lots of beans, yucca. There is a special menu for people on medical orders, like low-fat food, and there is also a special diet for the children. They do not give you a plate or spoon or fork. In Santa Monica they only give you a mattress and a blanket. You have to have your own eating set, and in plastic – no metal or glass allowed. I used to have a whole packet of plastic spoons and forks, I kept one and then I was able to give the rest out to people who didn’t have them.
After lunch there was a free period, you could do whatever you wanted. The main entertainment was television, mainly soap opera. TV is on from three to eleven at night, when the lights go off.
In prison you have three blocks: in the A blocks you use the three floors. The first one is reserved to pregnant women and women with children. In the B block the first floor is used for workshops; on second and third floor there are women who have been sentenced, and this is only about 20 to 30% – 60% or more are waiting for sentences. The C block is on the first floor for sick and elderly women, on second and third floor for repeaters, women that come in for the second or third time. I was on the block of the unsentenced people, on the third floor, with about 250 people. The floor is formed by a long hallway and you have rooms on both sides. Some of these rooms are small, just for two people. Some are for 6 to 8 people. At the end of the hallway there is this huge room I was mentioning before. When you first go to prison you sit on the floor. Then if you are lucky and someone is leaving you get yourself a bunk in the big room where you are put at the beginning. Then you are moved to the hallway. Eventually you get moved into the rooms, and usually on invitation. Someone tells you that there is a person who is leaving and they invite you to join them in their room.
This is it, life prison. Certainly no fun, but I can’t say it was a bad experience. That’s what can happen in life and you have to face it.
Visiting day for women are Wednesdays and Sundays, and they all go out to the patio. Only small children and elderly ladies who are visiting are allowed to go into the rooms. There is no restriction on the material visitors bring in. You can actually have what you need. I had all my files, and kept them on the upper part of my bunk; I was working on my defense all the time. I won’t go into the details of the appeals I made to be released, it was an ordeal. After 32 months in prison a group of friends and lawyers decided that they wanted to name a lawyer for me. He stepped and started working on the appeal. I was released a month later. They would have had to release me anyway when I hit the 36 months line for excess with no sentence.
This is it, life prison. Certainly no fun, but I can’t say it was a bad experience. That’s what can happen in life and you have to face it. I tried to do the best out of it. I read the Bible, I did things I wouldn’t have done on the outside or at least at that rhythm and time went by.
Testimony collected by Claudia Landini (Claudiaexpat)