Features — 13 February 2016 — by Johnelle McKenzie
A female’s life behind bars

HATTIEVILLE, Belize District, Wed. Feb. 10, 2016–Belize’s prison is no longer a place where you “lock them up and throw away the key,” prison officials told Amandala today. There was a time when the prison was known to have overcrowded cells, the inmates were fed out of pigtail buckets and there were other unsanitary conditions they had to put up with. Conditions are different now, it appears.

Amandala travelled to the facility, which has been managed by the Kolbe Foundation since 2002, and spoke with Virgilio Murillo, chief executive officer of the Kolbe Foundation; John Woods, chairman emeritus of the board of the Kolbe Foundation; and some of the women incarcerated there.

Murillo told Amandala that it was costing the government $16 a day per inmate; they have managed to get those figures down to $13.25 a day per inmate, which works out to approximately $19,000 a day.

He said that while, as he mentioned, the government pays the institution $13.25 per inmate, the foundation engages in fundraising to get the rest of funds they need, and from time to time generous individuals have made donations to assist.

Under the new management, Murillo said, the inmates now have hope and they are more focused on trying to get their act together.

“I walk the yard and I test the temperature by talking to them, and by the interaction I have with them, I pick up that they are not feeling oppressed anymore,” he said.

The female inmates constitute just a small percentage of the whole prison population. Woods pointed out a building where the females can attend classes such as sewing. Amandala spoke with some of the women to find out the circumstances that led to their imprisonment, and what are their hopes for the future.

Marilee Castillo, 24, told Amandala that hanging out with the wrong crowd got her behind bars. Castillo said that she was convicted for drug trafficking and, in addition to being sentenced to 3 years in prison, was fined $10,000. Castillo desperately wants to get out of prison and be united with her four-year-old child, since her aunt, who is presently looking after her son, is sickly.

Castillo has a dream of becoming an officer in the Coast Guard after she has served her time. She said that being in prison has changed her, since she has had a lot of time to reflect on her life, and through that process, chose to become a Christian.

As a result, Castillo said, the life she is now living in prison is different from the one she lived on the outside.

Tanisha Bunsen, 34, was convicted of burglary and before she was incarcerated, she was gainfully employed. While she has been in prison, Bunsen said, she has taken courses in hairstyling and nail care. Bunsen said that she misses her son the most, and regrets that, while in prison, she is missing out on her child’s life. He will be graduating from primary school in June.

Bunsen said that she is looking forward to her parole in December.

Lavern Longsworth, 41, better known as “Anti-Christ,” was convicted of killing her common-law husband, David White – an incident that received extensive coverage in the media — and was sentenced to life in prison.

However, she managed to successfully appeal her case, which resulted in the overturning of her murder conviction to a lesser conviction of manslaughter. She was subsequently given a vastly reduced sentence of eight years.

Longsworth said that she is enrolled in the program “Journey to Freedom”, which is teaching her how to be a better person and how to build her life again. (According to Murillo, “Journey to Freedom” is a program which assists inmates to “work through the stages of change and which requires the participants to write their personal plan of action from a physical, spiritual and mental perspective.”)

Longsworth told us that she regrets killing her common-law husband, and while she believes that God has forgiven her, she hopes that her common-law husband’s family would do the same.

Longsworth said that she misses her freedom, and she longs to be with her children.

The inmates are assigned a number of tasks — from tending the farm, to working in the block factory, doing construction, carpentry, plumbing, electrical repair and metal work.
Also, there is a tailor shop where the inmates make uniforms for the staff of the prison. Some of them build houses while others do artwork.

Murillo told us that the fact that there were zero escapes last year is in itself a testament that the morale of the inmates has improved. The percentage of recidivism is approximately 25%, he said.

Meanwhile the atmosphere in the remand section is different, since many of the prisoners believe that they will not be convicted, and therefore, they have no desire to sign up for a rehabilitation program.

However, there is a new rehabilitation center being built for the inmates on remand to get them involved in the programs and somehow transform them by the time they are released back into society. There are inmates who have been on remand for as long as seven years, Murillo said.

John Woods, Chairman Emeritus of the board of the Kolbe Foundation, told Amandala that there are 1,425 inmates at the Kolbe Foundation, of which 403 are on remand awaiting trial. There are 1,391 males and 34 females.

Woods said that these numbers could be reduced even further if there was an alternative way to deal with dads who have not been contributing to the care of their children and illegal immigrants, who would be deported immediately, instead of being imprisoned.

Four male inmates are assigned to a cell, while among the female prisoners, there is a cell for every two inmates.

Woods said that they are trying to do their best to reform these inmates so that when they have finished serving their time, they can return to society and become productive citizens. The way in which they accomplish this is through rehabilitation and educational programs.

Murillo told us that there are programs such as Journey to Freedom, which helps the inmate to “work through the stages of change and which requires the participants to write their personal plan of action from a physical, spiritual and mental perspective.”

There is also the Ashcroft Rehabilitation Center, where inmates go through a 12-step four-month program to break their addictions and “this is complimented with the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy entitled New Direction,” he said, adding that “Research has shown that once you run a just and fair prison, you should pull it off.”

Murillo believes that many of the inmates have been the victims of injustice on the part of the police or the judiciary and they want to take a different approach by treating them with respect.

The radio station, Jeremiah 33:3, serves as a complement to the ongoing programs that are offered to the inmates. Avil Steadman, director of the radio station, who is the former program director for Belize Watch, Love FM, said that the programs are spiritual, educational, and informative. Steadman said that speakers are on every building to enable the inmates to hear the radio station, which, he said, aims to help inmates to build their self-esteem by helping them see themselves in a different light, not as a criminal, but as someone who can still have a bright future.

Steadman works on Love FM on Sunday evenings and that program is rebroadcast on Jeremiah 33:3. Through this program, inmates can send “requests” to their loved ones on the outside, and their loved ones can in turn send “requests” to them.

Murillo told us that the prisoners get paid for certain services they provide and are encouraged to put half of their pay in a savings account so that when they are released, they can have that money to help them start rebuilding their lives.

Woods told us that the prison does a lot to reform the inmates, but that society needs to adjust its mentality in order to allow the prisoners a second chance upon their release.

Herbert Gayle, an anthropologist, conducted a study in 2010 entitled Male Social Violence in Belize, and his findings were released on Monday, November 22, 2010. In that report, Gayle said, “Kolbe Foundation runs the best prison I have ever seen in my life…They have created a number of programs…that I am aware of have been used in other countries.”

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