Two weeks ago FAPE launched a new program. After months of fighting bureaucracy, they finally got permission to give loans to female prisoners at the Centro Preventivo de Rehabilitación Santa Teresa (loosely translated, the Santa Teresa Prevention Center for Rehabilitation). The program was kicked off with a weeklong training called ISUN (Inicie su Negocio or Start your Business). Thirty-two women participated in this course, which is a joint effort from the Coordinadora Nacional de Microempresarios de Guatemala (the Guatemalan government’s national office on microenterprise), the Guatemalan Ministry of Economy, and FAPE, with most of the funding coming interestingly from the Government of Taiwan. I had the opportunity to attend one day of the course and then returned for the graduation. And yes, I was there to interview a client for a Kiva loan.
The whole experience was very interesting and quite bizarre. Santa Teresa is a low security prison, where women (there is also a men’s prison within the compound, but I didn’t visit that) are detained while their trials and sentencing are pending. Most of the women are there for either drug-related crimes or money laundering. Many of them have been there for several years, simply waiting for their cases to get through the bureaucracy of the courts.
Entrance into the prison was remarkably easy. I was with Sergio, the director of FAPE, and all he had to do was show a copy of a letter from the director of the prison, and we were allowed in right away. It was interesting to note that the “official document” that allowed us to drive right past the sign that no cars are allowed was actually a poor copy of a faxed letter – really not very official looking at all. We had to wait a little outside the entrance into the women’s prison, but only because the sign-in registry wasn’t at the front desk yet. Once we were admitted, I handed over my passport in exchange for two stamps on my forearm, which were evidently the temporary mark of a free person. I was eventually patted down, but only once we were well inside the prison, as that was the first time we passed a female guard. I had my camera in my pocket, which aroused suspicion when they felt it, but upon seeing the poorly faxed letter, once again we passed through without question – they didn’t actually even look at what the large thing in my pocket was. I’m definitely curious if the lackadaisical security is the same for everyone, or if I would have had a more thorough inspection if I weren’t American. I suspect so.
Once we were actually in the prison, I was struck by how much it didn’t feel like a prison; although I didn’t see any of the rooms where the women actually
live, which I have heard are far from pleasant. The views are quite nice, beautiful lush mountains on the edge of the city, clothes of all sizes hang out to dry
in the sun, little kids wander around (yes, children are allowed to stay with their mothers in prison until the age of 4, but once they turn 4 they are sent to an orphanage if they don’t have family to go to), all the women are dressed just like you would see a group of random women out in town, although no traditional clothing at all.
It was really fun to watch and even participate at bit in the ISUN training, which was very interactive and the women participated very enthusiastically. There was a lot of laughter and camaraderie, and it really just didn’t feel like the preconceptions I guess I have about how a prison should feel. At one point the course involved an activity where the women were divided into groups, given some random supplies, and told to create a business in 20 minutes. Evidently when this course is taught elsewhere, the teachers bring a whole host of materials to be used to make some sort of product to “sell.” However, because we were in prison, the amount of supplies, and especially things like scissors, was quite limited. It was really fun to see them all working together and coming up with such different ideas for what they would use their bits of paper, string, glue, and markers for. Once the 20 minutes were up, the teachers, Sergio, and I were supposed to be customers and visit each business to see if we were interested in “buying” anything. One group made a catalogue of clothing and conducted an “international fashion show” of their clothing, as they had a Nicaraguan, a Russian, a Colombian, and Guatemalans in their group. I got targeted to “buy” their hypothetical clothes and it was hilarious to see them fake wine and dine me. And with Sergio along as my husband for the day, I “bought” some clothes with his credit card. The whole thing was quite funny and the ladies really seemed to be having such a good time. Other groups made things like address books, greeting cards, and random little toy things out of yarn that were actually really cute. After the activity each group talked about what businesses they came up with, what they sold, and why they thought they did or didn’t do well with their sales. And then we, the consumers, got to talk about why we did or didn’t buy the various items. It was a fun and seemingly very effective way to get everyone thinking about what all they need to consider when starting up a business, from consumer preference, to advertising, pricing, competition, etc.
While the training was really interesting on its own, I eventually got to the task I came there for: to interview a prisoner for a Kiva loan. It was very interesting to talk to her and she really was more appreciative of the chance to get a loan than almost anyone I’ve talked to yet. While we didn’t talk in detail about why she’s in prison, it has something to do with money laundering and her mother and cousin are in with her for the same. They’ve been in for a whopping four years waiting for their sentencing and can now leave as soon as they can pay their fines – 50,000 Quetzals each, which is less than $7,000, but totally cost prohibitive for them. They have a lawyer and are working to get the fines reduced, but if they can’t then they’ll be transferred to another prison to start serving out their fines – at a rate of 25 Q a day, so almost 5 ½ years, on top of the 4 they’ve already spent waiting around for their trials and finalizing the fine. Wow.
So other than the really interesting training and hearing more about the inefficiencies of the Guatemala justice system, it was also fascinating to learn a little more about how and why prisoners have businesses from within prison. Karina, the lady I was interviewing, talked about how bad the food that the government provides is and that they really do have to find ways to supplement what they’re given. From what I understand, it’s not bad just in terms of taste, it really is just very poor quality, small quantity, and relatively void of nutritional value. The prison has regular visitor’s days, and many prisoners have family members that bring them food, snacks, and necessities such as toilet paper. Some people, however, like Karina and her mother and cousin, do not have any family nearby, and are therefore left with the only option of purchasing additional food and necessities from within the prison, where prices are easily double what they are outside.
Karina and her cousin work making arts and crafts like those shown in this picture, which they gave to me to thank me for coming, and Karina has a business selling juice to the other ladies in the prison. Previously she had been able to use another lady’s freezer to cool the juice down, but that lady left and took her freezer. Obviously Karina can sell a lot more juice if it’s cold, so she is requesting a loan from FAPE to buy a refrigerator and more juice. It was interesting to hear about the networking that she was able to do from within prison, shopping around for the best deal she could find on a used refrigerator and jumping through all the hoops necessary to get permission to bring it into the prison.
She also talked quite a bit about what they’ll do when they get out. They don’t have a house or anything, don’t have any money, and will have a hard time getting formal jobs of any kind because of their criminal records. Karina really is working hard, between her arts and crafts and the juice sales to try to get a little money together to get started when she gets out. It was also really interesting to talk with her about her plans for the future and her dreams. She has all sorts of ideas for businesses she would like to start and has very clearly had lots of time to really think different ideas through and strategize.
Overall, it was a really interesting experience. In many respects, these women are absolutely not typical microfinance clients. Beyond the obvious distinction that they are in prison, every one of them can read and write and have had far more education than most FAPE clients, or microfinance clients in general. Nevertheless, in some respects they really aren’t all that different. They certainly have very limited resources at their disposal, and have faced and will continue to face many challenges in terms of building a life for themselves and their families. Many will leave prison with very little, if any, money in their pockets to get started with their lives again. What’s so exciting about what FAPE is doing here though, is that now 32 of these women will be leaving with a little more knowledge about how to start a business. And for those that will be receiving loans from FAPE in the coming months and starting their own businesses from within prison, they’ll potentially have a little more money to get started with, and will have gained some experience managing a business in what actually is a decently competitive market within the walls of the prison.
Obviously many people may have reservations about lending money to prisoners, and that’s certainly understandable. But at the same time, after having seen how excited these women were to have a chance to learn about starting up business and to potentially have access to some resources to really start doing something productive with their time in prison, I would certainly feel comfortable loaning my own money to these women. As I said before, Karina really was so incredibly appreciative of the fact that FAPE is willing to take a chance and invest in these women and I have no doubt in my mind that she will do all that she can to rise to the challenge and fulfill her side of the deal.
Eventually the training was finished for the day and we got ready to leave. Interestingly, on the way out I was given my passport back but before they would
let me leave they insisted I roll up my sleeve to show them that I did in fact have those apparently all-important stamps on my forearm. This particular day was a visitor’s day at the men’s prison next door, so as we headed out we saw all the action associated with that. There were tons of people everywhere, with all the women in skirts, as that’s an actual requirement to visit the men’s prison. The street outside the prison building, but still within the compound, was lined with little stores and eateries doing booming business for all the people that had come in from other areas and wanted to provide their friends/family members in prison with goodies and a decent meal. A very interesting scene overall.
While I’m certainly no expert in prison systems anywhere, I have had the opportunity to visit prisons in Mexico and Bolivia prior to this trip to Santa Teresa. And all of these prisons had very limited resources and prisoners did what they could to supplement what the government provides. Out of necessity, people start up businesses and because the governments provide so little, there is significant demand for basic products. The fact that FAPE has initiated a program to help the women of Santa Teresa start up businesses, not just through offering them loans but also through working with the Guatemalan government to provide training in starting up a business, is really such a fascinating way to help facilitate business development within this market and, more than anything, start giving opportunities to women that want to make changes in their lives but have very limited opportunities to do so.
Since businesses in prison, and especially loans to prisoners, are such foreign concepts to many of us, I’m really interested to hear what Kiva lenders think about this project and I hope to receive some comments here if anyone has any interesting thoughts on the matter./>