By: Jeanette Windle with Freddy Chavez
“I truly am a sinner and deserve this punishment,” confesses Prisoner M to BCM Bolivia missionary Freddy Chavez. “None of my family knows I am here in prison. I come from a place a day’s bus ride from here. I need someone to visit me because I am forgotten here. No one brings me supplies, and I have now been here five years without a trial or receiving a sentence.”
Prisoner M is not unique in San Pablo Prison, one of several prisons in Bolivia’s highland city of Cochabamba. An estimated 70% of inmates in Bolivia’s prisons have spent years behind bars without any formal charges, trial, or sentence. Which means they also have no idea when, if ever, they will be freed. Current prison occupancy is at 300% capacity. In San Pablo, more than four hundred male prisoners are crowded into a total area of 600 square meters, of which only a portion is actually allotted for prisoners. Yes, the math is accurate—less than a square meter of living space per prisoner.
To complicate living conditions, prisoners are expected to supply their own food and other needs, so those without family members to bring them meals, toiletries, fresh clothing are left in dire straits. There is a prison carpentry shop, but only long-term prisoners are allowed to work there, so hungry newcomers scrub laundry or find other odd jobs to earn their next meal. But life is not completely bleak. Regular visits from spouses and children are permitted. And outside organizations are permitted to host festivities on special days such as New Years, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Day of the Child, etc.
BCM missionaries Freddy and Lizet Chavez have been visiting San Pablo Prison for five years now. Their motivation is simple. “Scripture tells us in Hebrews 13:3 to ‘remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison,’” Freddy explains.
Each visit follows a similar pattern. Gift bags are prepared with food and toiletry items as well as clothing, much of it donated by the congregation Freddy pastors in Cochabamba. Freddy and Lizet, their children, as well as other volunteers head to the prison. Everything they have brought is searched by guards to ensure no contraband is being smuggled into the prison.
Once through security, the team sets up make-shift tables in the prison courtyard, where they lay out gift bags and piles of clothing. One additional gift that is eagerly received is a stack of large plastic tubs, which recipients can use to scrub laundry in exchange for a few pesos or cooked meal. The courtyard itself has been cleared out for the event since it too is normally crowded with a spillover of prisoners. The team launches into singing accompanied by Freddy’s guitar. Then Freddy shares a Bible message. While supplies are being handed out, the team takes time to visit one-on-one with prisoners, praying and counseling with any who request it.
On the first visit of 2018, January 2nd, the visit is especially festive since Freddy and Lizet have petitioned the prison authorities to permit children and wives to join the male prisoners for a special Christmas celebration. While some of the children live with family, others are visiting from a nearby orphanage that houses children whose parents are in prison. At the Chavez’ own church, a Christmas tradition is to prepare a goody bag of sweetened popcorn, candy, and cookies, plus a simple toy for each child. So the team has prepared similar bags for prisoners to be able to give to their visiting children. The children sing Christmas carols, then receive a Christmas message directed to them before their fathers line up, children in arms, to receive their Christmas treat.
How has this outreach impacted San Pablo Prison? Only God can truly judge. But a prisoner recently told Freddy, “Pastor, I’ve seen great changes since you began visiting us. Many of the prisoners have stopped drinking smuggled-in alcohol. We now are holding our own church service here in the prison. Some of the young men are learning to play worship songs on the guitar, and more are attending the services. And there is more friendship and companionship among the prisoners.”
For Freddy and Lizet Camacho, this is motivation to keep returning to San Pablo, despite their own busy schedules. But Freddy sees a need for a much deeper involvement if touched hearts are to bear fruit. Their team’s long-term goals are two-fold:
- Introduce practical skill courses into the prison to provide more opportunities for prisoners to earn a living as well as to help pass the days locked up in such a crowded small area.
- Provide correspondence courses for ongoing discipleship of prisoners who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ.
Ongoing needs are more volunteers and finances to continue supplying necessary food items and others needs for prisoners.
Originally Published in BCM World April 2018