Still hundreds of miles away in their village, Oscar’s parents didn’t know he was in prison for stealing bus fares.
A small and painfully shy boy, Oscar would nearly burst into tears whenever he could summon the courage to look me in the eye. Despite being arrested for a petty crime, Oscar had little hope of making bail or getting an early release.
There are 1.4 million children in prison around the world. Each one is a child – just like Oscar. Each one has a story. But they are locked behind cement walls, chain-linked fences, police dogs, armed guards, and iron bars – just like Oscar. Their stories are locked away, too, far from our comfortable lives. Telling their stories is powerful. It is the first step to their freedom.
When we arrived at the detention center the sister and mother waited anxiously for Rene to be brought from his cell. Finally, he walked down the chain link fence walkway. His sister started to cry. They hugged and held each other. Soon they were laughing.
Then he was sent to detention. Julio is adamant that he was not in the fight. Today was the first time Julio had hugged his mother since his harrowing arrest. “My son is innocent,” she stated. She is still nervous. Julio’s trial is in two weeks and the lawyer told them that “we’re going for all or nothing.” Her voice bordered on panic. Shortly after meeting Julio, he was found not-guilty at trial and released.
His mother is an important economic support for this family. She sells burritos from her home so that she can care for one of her children who has a disability. But despite having an income, she did not have enough resources to visit her son in one of the worst moments of his life. She was accompanied by her daughter, Carlos’s sister. Despite their difficulties, the family did not stop laughing and hugging. Carlos was already released, after a 6-month sentence that caused him to regret his actions since he could not help his loved ones financially from prison. Carlos was released soon after we met him.
Luis will get out of detention in a year. Without family support, considering the trauma he has experienced, a successful re-entry to society is difficult to imagine.
A few days later, Oswaldo had misbehaved and had his visitations revoked as punishment. Once we arrived in Chihuahua for the project we received a call from Oswaldo’s aunt. Oswaldo’s mother had died unexpectedly and the detention director would not authorize Oswaldo to leave and attend the funeral.
Rather than pay for bus tickets for Oswaldo’s family to visit him in detention, we paid for a hearse to bring Oswaldo’s mother’s body to the detention center. Only his grandmother was allowed to accompany the casket. Oswaldo cried. He refused to believe it was actually his mother. Two weeks later Oswaldo received some good news. He was granted conditional release. He is now at a community-based institution receiving job training.
“Every Child Has A Story” was unveiled at Juvenile Justice Advocates International’s Annual Celebration on October 13th, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over the next two years, the “Every Child Has A Story” exhibit was presented at over 12 events in Minneapolis, Washington DC, Mexico City, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Geneva, Switzerland and Paris, France with exposure to more than 5,000 people. These included government officials, human rights advocates, juvenile justice officials, and the World Congress on Justice for Children at UNESCO in Paris, France.