Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Colombian Catholic Prison Ministry Receives Van Thuan Prize

The Vatican Press Office announced yesterday that the ALAS project of the "Caminos de Libertad" Foundation of the Archdiocese of Bogota, Colombia, will receive one of the 2009 Van Thuan Solidarity and Development Prizes. The prize, valued at 15,000 euros will be used to build a national centre for prison ministry in conjunction with Pastoral Penitenciaria de Colombia. The prize is named for the late Cardinal Francois-Xavier Van Thuan who headed the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace before his death. The Archdiocese of Bogota welcomed the prize, calling it "a recognition not only of Father Andrés Fernández, who has been working in the Colombian jails for almost 40 years, but of all people who support the mission of the Church behind bars, who make visible and real the words of Jesus: 'I was in prison and you visited me ...'"

In honor of this occasion, we would like to share with you this translation of a 2008 interview with Father Andrés by Jacques Berset (APIC):

"Colombian prisons are planned for 50,000 inmates, but they shelter more than 75,000 people in overcrowded conditions that reach unsustainable proportions. In some detention centers, prisoners often have a space to sleep that does not exceed 75 cm in width. They are forced to crowd into the toilets and showers," Fr. Andrés Fernández Pinzón, national coordinator of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care of Colombia (PPC), tells APIC.

Father Andrés Fernández Pinzón, a tall soft-spoken priest, gives us the statistics, while stressing that this prison overcrowding, which does not even include all those who are imprisoned in the police stations, in the district and municipal detention centers, has become completely inhumane.

Since youth, as a student already, Andrés has been committed to improving the living conditions of prisoners in Colombia. His bishop in the Diocese of Sonson-Rionegro (Antioquia), allowed him to visit prisons while he was still a seminarian. When he was ordained a priest, he continued this commitment.

In Colombia, the prison situation is frightening. In recent years, with the repressive policies of President Alvaro Uribe Velez (first elected in 2002 and reelected in 2006), the prison population has increased dramatically, causing a rate of overcrowding in prisons of over 40 percent above the available accomodation capacity. The Defensoria del Pueblo, a public agency responsible for ensuring respect for human rights and defending citizens, believes that overcrowding in prisons in Colombia "is one of the factors that contribute to the violation of all fundamental human rights of persons deprived of liberty." For Father Andrés, the high recidivism rate - 70 percent! - shows that just confining someone for years does not solve the crime problem.

APIC: Father Andrés, what is your position in the Colombian Church?

Father Andrés: I am the national coordinator of Prison Pastoral Care of Colombia (PCC), entrusted with this task by the Bishops' Conference in Bogota. I have worked in the prisons for 38 years ... while I was studying in school, then as a seminarian, I worked as a volunteer. And it is now 16 years since I was officially appointed to the post of national coordinator. The state gives us the opportunity to have a General Chaplain of Prisons, appointed by the Bishops' Conference.

APIC: How many prisons do you care for nationally? With how many chaplains?

Father Andrés: The Prison Ministry has thirteen chaplains, not counting some part-time ones, appointed by the bishops. That would be about forty in all, for 141 prisons throughout Colombia, with 75,000 prisoners. That does not include some 15,000 Colombian prisoners in various countries around the world ...

APIC: Why are there so many Colombians in foreign jails?

Father Andrés: Most of them were convicted for transporting drugs, including those used as "mules". They are usually young people, and there are mothers among them. They are promised money to smuggle drugs into your country. Every Christmas, the Prison Pastoral Care, after collecting the addresses through embassies, consulates, prison chaplains of various countries, sends greeting cards to any Colombian held in any prison in the world.

APIC: The prison situation in Colombia is explosive ...

Father Andrés: In the Colombian prisons, there are various groups of prisoners: those who are there because they belong to the guerrilla insurgent movements or paramilitary groups, others for drug trafficking, not to mention a whole variety of common crimes. When the prison is small, all these people are mixed, but when there is a big prison, they are separated by quarters: the guerrilla and the paramilitaries are not put together. There were gun battles at the beginning -- 1990 to 2000 -- between the guerrilla and the paramilitaries, with deaths and injuries.

At that time, there were firearms in the prisons, even grenades; now it has calmed down a bit ... How they could bring so many weapons into the prisons is a mystery ... But there were clearly accomplices in prison, the family ... women visiting their husbands were able to hide weapons in the private parts of their body! Not to mention drug trafficking, because there is a lot of drug use in the detention centers ...

APIC: In some Colombian prisons one sees signs that say it is "forbidden to use drugs on Sunday" ...

Father Andrés: That means of course that drugs are being used in prison! The conditions are difficult for the prisoners; they are really stacked on top of each other. Inmates must sleep on the floor in the corridors, next to the toilets and showers. We are clearly talking about subhuman situations.

In Bogota, we have La Picota, for example, which houses 5,300 inmates, La Modelo, which had 5,500 (when there was officially space for only 2,700), Reclusion de Mujeres Buen Pastors, a women's prison where there are a thousand inmates, the district prison, etc. The Church is present in all the prisons, with the "Pastoral Penitenciaria Católica" (Prison Pastoral Care).

A priest who is chaplain, is accompanied by a team of lay volunteers who develop a number of services for prisoners: they act as "integrated brigades" of doctors, lawyers, dentists, eye care professionals, opticians and even hair stylists. These volunteers, professionals who receive no salary, travel once a month, and at the large prisons, the work lasts two days. They asked for leave from their firms. This has already been going on for 14 years! It must be said that usually in prisons, when prisoners have the chance to see the doctor, there is often no medicine, and when there is dental equipment, there is no dentist ...

We are certainly not the solution, as it should be the duty of the state to provide these services to inmates. We are only a small grain of sand, because as it says in the Gospel: "... I was in prison and you visited me". (Matthew 25)

54,000 free consultations in Colombian prisons

"In ten years we've offered some 54,000 free consultations in the Colombian prisons," says Father Andrés. This voluntary activity is possible with the help of foreign relief agencies, such as Misereor in Germany or AED, not counting support from the Colombian Church, which not always easy to obtain. Some regions, like the Choco on the Pacific Coast of Colombia, have not yet benefited from assistance from the PPC, because transportation costs are too high. Only those costs, along with the meals of the integrated brigades and the cost of overnight accommodations, are assumed by Prison Pastoral Care, but that's already a huge amount. "Our volunteers, who take leave for this, work all day, two consecutive days per month. That is considerable! These professionals have a special gift, a very special charism, and the prisoners appreciate them a lot, nothing has ever happened to them ... "

Solidarity with Prisoners Abroad

Since 1995, the PPC has been making contact abroad with prison chaplains, and embassies and consulates. Every year at Christmas, it sends some 15,000 greeting cards to Colombians being held in some 60 countries, often for drug trafficking. The prison ministry also works for the reintegration of prisoners at the end of their sentence. "Finding work outside of prison is not easy. For society, these people are "marked", and they fail to reintegrate. No wonder we have a recidivism rate of nearly 70 per cent. We often try to train the wives of prisoners so that when they leave, they can work together to develop a small business, sewing, selling food on the street, etc.. It is very difficult to reintegrate former prisoners into formal productive activity because they no longer have work discipline. For farmers, it is very difficult, because the city jail is just a world of concrete, there is no land for production, animal husbandry ... I dream one day of having the money to buy a few acres of land and develop a self-sustaining farm that could accommodate those who are about to leave prison. Our problem is finding the money to fund such activities, because people give more freely for projects concerning the elderly or children than for criminals!"

Towards the construction of a large National Center for Prison Ministry

Through the "Caminos de Libertad" Foundation he created eleven years ago, Father Andrés was able to buy a plot of approximately 3,000 m2 in the historical district of Bogota to build the large "National Center for Colombian Catholic Prison Ministry". Now to find the money to the tune of several million dollars! The aim is particularly to accommodate families who come from all over Colombia to visit family members imprisoned in Bogota, because women are sleeping outside the jail, while waiting for visiting hours.

Others are staying in cheap hotels of dubious repute at the risk of sexual assault, Father Andrés testifies. "Those who pay when a father is in prison, are the members of his family, the children at school, who are shunned by their peers and eventually drop out..." Not to mention the foreigners who are on parole, prohibited from working or leaving the country. "A situation that can last several years! If it were not for our center, they would be on the street and would steal or prostitute themselves to survive .... " It is to address this persistent problem, that the national coordinator of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care has launched a major project which aims to offer a home for families visiting their imprisoned parents, allowing some of them to receive training in arts and crafts and then be independent, and to welcome the foreigners who have been released and are waiting for their exit papers.

Fundación Caminos de Libertad - Video

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