In Chiapas Women's Prison, Cold Hours Pass Slowly

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mexican women imprisoned in the highlands of Chiapas struggle over scarce resources in crowded rooms. The nights are cold and the days are long. One woman says she's learned to read and write and make paper flowers to sell.

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)--"Sleep little one, sleep," whispers Adela Perez as her 5-month-old son, Enrique, cries. "It's better to sleep because the day is long. Sleep, Enrique, sleep."

She rubs his little back with her dark, dry hands.

"Stop crying, please," she says, pacing around the small patio, afraid of being reprimanded by the cellblock guards or by one of her 45 "housemates."

"They're going to yell at us. Shut up, please. I don't want problems with the others."

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Perez, 23, is serving a 10-year sentence for a crime she asks not to discuss and which she says she didn't commit.

She is in the women's area of State Readaptation and Prevention Center No. 5, called Cereso 5, 20 kilometers outside of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state with high levels of poverty and a large indigenous population.

Perez gave birth in prison, two years after meeting co-inmate Manuel Perez, Enrique's father, who is serving time for robbery in the men's section of the center.

There are 15 incarceration centers in Chiapas, which house more than 3,500 prisoners. Consolidated in 2006, just three of these correctional centers, located in Cintalapa, Tapachula and San Cristobal, have wards for women. Inmates say the consolidation has caused overcrowding and moved many female inmates far from their familial support networks.

Time Passes Slowly

For the 46 women and three children who live in Cereso 5, time passes slowly. The days are punctuated by occasional conflicts stemming from cultural differences, scant resources and overcrowding.

"Life here is really hard for me and my baby," Perez says. "We are cold a lot and we get sick."

Cereso 5 is located in the highlands, where temperatures drop very low in the winter, making hot water and warm clothing essential for the inmates. The correctional center provides women with small buckets and two electric-coil hot water heaters to share.

"There are only two heaters, so if you want to bathe with warm water, you have to stand in line," says Perez, who has been in the prison for three years.

Beds are also in short supply. There are only 30 sleeping spaces for 46 women. At least 15 inmates share the 1-by-2-meter concrete slab beds, says lawyer Martha Figueroa, a women's rights advocate who visits the prison to conduct workshops on self-esteem and relationships.

The prisoners at Cereso 5 cook their own meals on five stoves and a hotplate, so competition for the equipment often causes tensions.

"We cook our own food, but because there are a lot of us, it's hard because there aren't many stoves," says Perez, looking at Enrique, finally asleep. "You have to wait in line to use one."

Figueroa agrees that the shortage of stoves causes problems among the inmates.

"El Cereso doesn't provide a cafeteria, but we do give them a small monthly stipend of about 20 pesos, about $2, a day so that they can buy food to cook," says Rodolfo del Pino Estrada, former director of Cereso 5.

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