By Loretta Taylor
On a sunny afternoon, I sat across from 19 year old young man, who I will call Nicólas, at a prison in the State of Guerrero. I was there to interview him about his experience and evaluate if we can offer support in some way. Nicólas, who is currently serving about a four year sentence, shook my hand as he entered my “office” for the day. As I spoke with him, I learned he is from a city this is roughly a 4 hour drive from the prison. “Does your family visit you?”, I asked. “No”, he responded stoically. “They don’t have enough money to visit.” He wishes that his mother could visit him, but he must suffice with hearing her voice once a month over the telephone. As we continued the interview, I was disappointed to learn that Nicólas lacked some basic necessities, such as soap and deodorant; but I was happy to hear that he has friends in the center who will gift him what he needs. His story is not uncommon. Of the 68 teenagers who are serving time or awaiting their sentencing at the prison, over half of them don’t receive visits. The same teenagers get regular visits, while others have only been visited once or twice.
Earlier that day, I had boarded a bus from Mexico City with a sense of nervousness and eagerness as I played out in my mind how the conversations would go. How willing would they be to open up to a complete stranger? Once I arrived, I spent the better part of the day interviewing teenage boys and girls, parents who were there to take advantage of visiting hours, and a member of prison staff. I started by speaking with families. They shared the difficulties they face when visiting their children. I was particularly struck by one mother’s story. She makes the two day trip from Puerto Vallarta to Guerrero once a month to visit her son, paying about $100 USD for a bus ticket. Previously, she (along with her husband and her daughter) had lived in Guerrero, but returned to Puerto Vallarta due to economic hardships. As she told me about the struggles she faces, I noticed a sense of relief and release on her part. She needed someone to listen to her and I was that person.
I spoke with more teenage boys like Nicólas. One-by-one, the security guard led them from their cells to what is usually the psychologist’s office. Some of them were timid and just wanted the interview to be over with as soon as possible. Some answered my questions without reservations. All of them were respectful and shook my hand upon entering the room. What I gathered from the short time that I spent with these young men was that they, too, are “normal” teenagers. Like many young people, they enjoy playing soccer and several mentioned that they would love more time to enjoy such activities. Besides that, they offered few complaints, which seemed to be more because they no longer expected much and were used to the treatment they received.
I took a different approach when speaking with the girls, interviewing the six of them as a group. By the time I spoke with them, my nerves had long since disappeared. Similarly to the young men, some of them don’t receive family visits. If needed, they share toiletries amongst each other, which was not the least bit surprising to me. While being together 24/7 as a group could potentially stir up feelings of animosity, these young women seem to have formed a strong friendship. They were also a curious bunch, asking me several times to say something in English and chuckling each time I did so.
As I left the center, I heard a chorus of goodbyes. I was content, but the combination of exhaustion and novelty of the experience left little time for me to process the day’s events. What I can say with complete certainty is that I met some resilient teenagers and families who don’t yet seem to be hardened by their circumstances. They deserve just treatment and a bright future outside of the prison’s four walls.