Priests say Mexican prisons have improved, but still have problems

IMAGE: Catholic News Service

By David Agren

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (CNS) — When
Father Alberto Melendez began ministering at the prison in this once-violent
border city nine years ago, rival gangs ran criminal operations from behind
bars. Riots broke out regularly; a 2009 tragedy claimed 20 lives.

“There was no system of
control inside,” Father Melendez recalled. Inmates “were the ones
giving the orders.”

Pope Francis will visit the
prison, known as Cereso No. 3, during a day trip Feb. 17 to Ciudad Juarez,
which borders El Paso, Texas, and once held the dubious distinction of murder
capital of the world. That is an image local leaders are eager to shed and a reality
no longer reflected in crime statistics. The prison, meanwhile, has undergone
renovations, and security officials say the situation inside has calmed

The pope also plans to celebrate
Mass at the U.S.-Mexico border while in Ciudad Juarez to draw attention to
migration issues and will meet with some of the employers and workers from the
maquiladoras, factories for exports that underpin the economy but cause
complaints over low wages and questionable labor conditions.

The prison visit is expected to
draw attention to the shortcomings of Mexico’s prison system — the credibility
of which was challenged by cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman,
who tunneled out of a maximum security facility in July and was recently
recaptured. Issues such as overcrowding, inmate control and corruption are
rife, along with violence, according to an annual report on prisons from the National
Human Rights Commission.

Officials say times have changed
in Ciudad Juarez, however, with the prisons there undergoing renovations, the
most dangerous inmates being sent to federal facilities and U.S. certification
being given last year.

“It hasn’t improved 100
percent,” Father Melendez said, “but it’s improved greatly.”

The improvements are hard to verify. The human rights
commission’s report from 2014 ranks prisons in Chihuahua state, which includes
Ciudad Juarez, eighth among Mexico’s 32 states. The Ciudad Juarez prison received a lower score in the report than it did in 2011.
The report also found evidence of overcrowding there.

Inmates interviewed by Catholic
News Service spoke in the presence of prison staff and were unwilling to talk
about any hardships suffered in Ciudad Juarez or other correctional facilities,
though they said the work of the prison ministry had helped with spiritual

The Ciudad Juarez prison once
symbolized the city’s problems. It suffered 12 riots and 216 murders in 2010. Last
year, there were no riots registered in the prison and only one homicide,
according to Chihuahua state statistics.

One prison official said the
pope’s visit isn’t entirely about validating their improvements, however.

“It’s not an endorsement.
It’s a recognition of the work we have done and the inmate’s good behavior, too,”
said Alejandrina Saucedo Hernandez, spokeswoman for the prison. “It’s a
way for forgiving all that happened in Ciudad Juarez and those involved,”
which includes the acts of “some of those on the inside.”

Father Roberto Luna, pastor of
Corpus Christi Parish and former director of the diocesan outreach to the young
offenders, echoed those comments on reconciliation, though he expressed
skepticism on the claims of prison improvements. He stopped working in the
juvenile facility due to disagreements after its control was transferred form
the city’s social work department to the state government.

The papal visit is “a
message for everyone to tell them, we can reconcile with those who did wrong,”
Father Luna said. “It’s the year of mercy. … We can reconcile with everyone,
even those who did wrong.”

Father Luna, speaking of his
time inside prisons, says inmates paid inflated prices for personal items on
the inside — $5 for a roll of toilet paper, for example — while families often
feed their imprisoned relatives because the food served on the inside can be

“If you truly reform a
prison, you do away with the businesses inside,” Father Luna said. Currently, “all
of the privileges you have inside, you pay for.”

Father Robert Coogan, an
American priest and prison ministry director for the Diocese of Saltillo, said
Mexican prisons have positive points, more evident prior to the crackdown on
drug cartels and organized crime that began in 2006. He said compared to
prisons in the United States, Mexican prisons have more family visiting days
and conjugal visit privileges, and Mexican inmates spend more time outdoors and
are able to leave their cells more often. Mexican prisons also aspire to
rehabilitation — a goal often not achieved — which affords more access to
work in prison workshops, artistic pursuits and educational opportunities.

There are shortcomings, though.

“What was terrible and what
is still terrible is the judicial system,” said Father Coogan, whose
prison was controlled for a time by the Los Zetas cartel, to the point they
painted his chapel over his objections.

Pope Francis’ message remains
uncertain, though Father Coogan expressed hope that the plight of innocent people
being put behind bars would be addressed, along with the stigmas facing
recently released prisoners, several of whom live with him in an informal
halfway house and face persistent police persecution.

Attracting parishioners to
prison ministry work also presents problems as many express fears of working
with inmates, and those making donations offer low-quality items.

“Don’t give me anything you
wouldn’t give your mother,” he told one person in rejecting a donation of
beat-up Bibles with torn pages.

Father Luna said he promoted sacraments in prison. He cited now-retired
Pope Benedict XVI in calling sacraments “the seeds of faith.”
He said many young offenders have become part of his parish community.

“I believe in rehabilitation,”
he said. “I saw many young people inside hurting. Now I’m welcoming them
into the church. I’m baptizing their children. I’m marrying them.” 

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Follow Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero.

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