Monday, November 10, 2014

Religion and Politics: Why Mission Makes For Offensive Dinner Guests

The New York Times has an excellent article and video report on the violent death of four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980. It's well worth watching in its entirety. It's an important story for U.S. Americans, in particular, to know and understand. But also, it explains well the direct connection between mission and politics. I don't know who finds this connection more bothersome: those politicians and religious leaders who would like to keep the two separate, or those friends of missioners who'd rather not hear about either.

I know I have friends and family who roll their eyes when I start talking about religion and politics. And boy do I. Talk about them, that is. Often. I know these are the two topics we're all supposed to keep quiet about in polite company. Never at the dinner table. Well, at least I try not to do it with my mouth full. And my poor Facebook friends: I often wonder how many have simply blocked me from their feeds to stem the tide.

But there's certain things that, once we know them, tend to trump politeness.

Sister Madeline Dorsey, MM, a Maryknoll Sister who was close to Jean, Dorothy, Ita, and Maura, the four martyrs, was a high school classmate and close friend of my grandmother's. They remained close until my Grandma's death a few years ago. It was stories about Maddie (my grandmother still called her Dorothy - her name before entering religious life) that first led me to consider becoming a missioner abroad with Maryknoll. Maddie had been at a meeting in Nicaragua with the other women, and would have been with them the night they died had they all been able to return home to El Salvador on the same flight. As it turned out, she is the middle woman of the three seen kneeling in prayer at the site where the four bodies were recovered, in this iconic photo.

The Times piece does a good job at explaining several of the ways the women's work with the poor became hugely political. Maddie has been a part of the ongoing efforts for justice. I've marched with her at the annual vigil and protest to close the U.S. Army's School of the Americas after most of her and my grandmother's high school friends had died of old age. If she wasn't an activist in the way Jeane Kirkpatrick described in an effort to justify the women's murder, she is definitely an activist now.

In 1995, when I arrived in Ossining, New York, Maryknoll's headquarters, and met Sr. Maddie for the first time, she was already a saint in my mind. But she was a very down-to-earth saint. She certainly didn't come across as someone with an agenda. She was a sweet, grandmotherly friend of the family, with the familiar accent and no-nonsense wit of her Brooklyn roots. She still calls me her "Maryknoll grandson," and on the day of my sending ceremony (like graduation from the Lay Missioner's formation program), she sent me photos she'd cut out of her high school yearbook, of her and my grandmother together in a school play.

But as we talked, she also told me about her experiences in El Salvador. She told me that she and the other sisters were not doing political work, per se. They were not there to be radicals or revolutionaries. But they were there to work with the poor, and that was, in itself, a political act. Their decision to stand with the poor was seen as a threat to the government and the military. It made them de facto revolutionaries, regardless of their motivations. And they knew full well the risk that this implied. They accepted that risk, not out of political fanaticism or a death wish (no martyr - not even Jesus - actually wants to die). They did it because they had fallen in love with the people with whom they lived and worked. They had found Christ in the Salvadoran people, and they were faithful both in the religious sense, and in the sense of any good friend.

These were inspiring stories to hear, but they were scary ones, too. I realized this meant that I, too, might be in for more than I'd bargained for. What kind of heartbreak, what kind of political danger, might I face? I'd started my journey to mission with good but simple motives: I wanted to "serve." I wanted to "give back." I wanted to "make a difference." But also, I found God an overly abstract concept, and my claims to "love" God often felt hollow. I decided the only way to really know and love God was to find God in God's people. I was never great at bible quotes, but I knew one: "I was hungry, and you fed me. I was in prison, and you visited me... whenever you did so to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did so to me." Or something like that. Jesus was not to be found hiding out in church. Jesus was in the world - and especially in the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized.

Now, all this quest-for-God stuff was largely something I kept private. I'd been raised Catholic. I went to church. I considered myself a Christian. I didn't hide that. But I wasn't one to flout it, either. I liked a good, heady conversation, and when the topic came up, I'd engage it. But I wasn't generally comfortable with "God talk," especially in mixed company, and I definitely was not one to try to slip my religious beliefs into casual conversation. I'm still not, really. But I've made a career out of my religious faith, so sometimes I feel obligated to explain that - or over-explain it. That's where my religion talk comes from. For me, it tends not to take the form of "Allelujah!" or "Believe!" or "Repent!" I save my more confessional stuff for small groups of people with a shared faith who've gathered for that common purpose - reflection meetings with other missioners, for example. My public religion talk is more, "Here's why I don't like what this one bishop just did," or "Here's why I'm excited about Pope Francis, should that be something you care to know."

Where I do get a little preachy, though, is when it comes to politics.

I understand the general aversion to the topic of politics, and more still when the politics are shaped by religion. When friends post right-wing memes and FoxNews talking points on Facebook, I roll my eyes, too. And I resent mightily religiously motivated attempts to write science out of school curricula or deny equal rights to LGBTQ citizens. But religion also leads a lot of us to work (alongside secular allies) for a better world. And like it or not, that means politics.

The thing is, most people - even those most skeptical of religion - would probably laud the desire to serve the poor and do good works as the most acceptable, least offensive manifestation of religion. But it's that seemingly-innocuous desire that can lead directly to a missioner getting political. Sister Maddie and the four martyred churchwomen are striking proof of how inextricable religion, service, and politics really can be. And when you've heard stories like Maddie's and seen the images of this gentle grandmotherly nun pulling her friend's mangled corpses from the ground; or when you've walked - and laughed and cried and eaten and danced - with the poor; when you've witnessed the murder and torture of those who stand up for their most basic human rights; when you've seen your own country's government and corporations driving that violence; and then, when you've returned home to a country where it all gets reduced to a soundbite at best, where we shrug off wars and throw up our hands at poverty and embrace and celebrate a two-party system in which both parties are beholden to the exact same Wall Street oligarchs and war profiteers... when the simple desire to help and to know God better has led you to that, well, sometimes it's hard to shut up about it.

Please pass the potatoes.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A letter to Eastside Catholic School administrators and Seattle Archbishop Sartain RE: the dismissal of Mark Zmuda

 Catholic kids in Seattle are standing up, sitting in, and refusing to quietly accept the termination of yet another Catholic school educator this week. I figured the least this Catholic (no longer a kid) from Seattle could do from Bolivia is write a letter to the people responsible.

I feel like I've written way too many letters like this. Perhaps that's my problem, but I think it's the Church's problem. I really believe we need to engage one another, and speak truth to power. I also have hope that people can hear. I understand Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain is a very kind, pastoral person and a great listener. I also sensed some pain the statements from Eastside administrators. I am hopeful that they will read my letter as it was intended: as a sincere expression of hurt and outrage, from a loving brother. Millions of people's hearts have changed on these issues. Laws have changed. Other churches have changed. I hold on to hope. The protests of the students make that hope even stronger. They are an inspiration.



To:       Archbishop Peter Sartain, Archdiocese of Seattle
                        c/o Ms. Angela Kison, Executive Assistant to the Archbishop
            Sr. Mary Tracy, President & CEO, Eastside Catholic School
            Ms. Polly Skinner, Principal, Eastside Catholic School

Cochabamba, Bolivia
20 December 2013
Dear Archbishop Sartain, Sister Tracy, and Principal Skinner,
Advent blessings from Bolivia. I am a Catholic missioner here, from the Archdiocese of Seattle. I am writing you because I’ve been reading in the news about the dismissal of Vice Principal Mark Zmuda from Eastside Catholic School. I am hurt, angered, and, as someone who represents the Catholic Church in a visible way, ashamed at your decision.
I admit I have long struggled with Church teachings on homosexuality. A close reading of those teachings, careful study of the bible, much prayer, and consideration of my own experiences with GLBT people – family members, friends, colleagues, priests and nuns, and others – have all played a role in forming my conscience, and I must say I disagree with the official position of our church.  I’ve often omitted this in writing about the issue, choosing instead to discuss the options available to the church within the bounds of its teachings. But I think it’s worth mentioning here that I dissent, because clearly a good man like Mark Zmuda does not enjoy the privilege of keeping his own dissent a secret.
Also, like many – some say most – Catholics, I dissent on some other issues, too. I dare guess that a few other employees at Eastside Catholic and elsewhere in the archdiocese do as well. And here is where I believe your decision violates the anti-discrimination clause listed on the Eastside website as part of its hiring policy (“Eastside Catholic School does not discriminate on the basis of an employee’s or applicant’s… marital status, sexual orientation or any other status or condition protected by local, state or federal law. Discrimination or harassment on the basis of any status or condition protected by local, state or federal law is strictly prohibited and will not be tolerated at Eastside Catholic School”), as well as the Catholic teaching against anti-gay discrimination.
I think Church teaching about homosexuality and the way you’ve chosen to interpret and enforce it imply a Catholic Church that must, sadly, reconsider whether it honestly intends to adhere to the kind of anti-discrimination policy Eastside claims. Your lawyers may or may not be able to prove that you have remained within the letter of the clause. But can you honestly say you’ve upheld the spirit of it?  
As you know, Church teaching does maintain that 1) being gay is not a sin, 2) acting on one’s homosexuality (including entering into a same-sex union) is a sin, but 3) Catholics are not to discriminate against GLBT people. Here’s why I think that, while what you’ve done may be one way of upholding #2, it is also a violation of #3 (as well as the non-discrimination clause): I mentioned that I and many other Catholics – including, I’d venture to guess, some still-employed former colleagues of Mr. Zmuda at Eastside Catholic – dissent on certain official Church teachings regarding complicated, intimate, rather private choices in our own lives. There are a lot of employees in a lot of Catholic institutions – some of whom have no doubt signed agreements to uphold Church teachings – who are divorced, or cohabiting with opposite-sex partners, or use artificial contraception. Why is it I never hear about these people being fired from their jobs? Could it possibly be because we tend to turn a blind eye in these cases, and perhaps even fear the kind of church we’d become if we started informing on one another and purging our institutions of any who would violate these oft-violated teachings? Imagine a parent sent you an email telling you they’d seen a married, heterosexual teacher picking up contraceptives at the local pharmacy. Would school administrators meet with the chancery and then fire the teacher? Has it ever happened? Or could it be you are enforcing the part of your contract requiring employees to uphold Church teachings in a way that discriminates against gay employees?
That’s an issue I’m sure lawyers will be examining. But I am writing to you simply as a fellow Catholic struggling, as you are, to be a faithful disciple of Jesus in a world in which these issues are increasingly challenging. Your decision pains me. I am upset for Mr. Zmuda. I am upset for the gay students at Eastside and around the country who’ve read about this and received the message, once again, that they are unwanted and unsafe. And I am sickened by again feeling the need to apologize for the Church I love and to which I’ve committed my life’s work, the Church in which I’ve encountered Christ throughout my life. In particular, I feel the need to apologize to the gay family and friends in whom I’ve also so often encountered Christ. I’ve encountered Christ in their suffering and persecution. But I’ve also encountered Christ in their ability to love. Millions who make up our church have experienced the same. As we prepare these days for the birth of Christ in the world, I pray the day comes soon when the shaping and enforcement of Church policy might be informed by similar experiences.
Faithfully,

Dan Moriarty

UPDATE: An Eastside student, Catrina Crittenden, and her father saw this post and wrote me to say Catrina would be interviewing Mr. Zmuda, and asked if I had questions for him. I submitted some, and she asked them. Her interview is very good, and it's up now here:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Follow-up letter to Megyn Kelly regarding "white Santa" kerfuffle.


The other day I wrote an open letter to Fox News' Megyn Kelly regarding her on-air assertions that both Santa and Jesus are white guys. A lot of other people took issue wither her statements, too, and now she has responded to her critics. Below, another open letter - I guess it's my response to Megyn Kelly's response to a whole bunch of people's response to her response to Aisha Harris' response to Santa always being white. I'm kind of betting there won't be another response. But if Megyn Kelly should suddenly send me a Christmas card (please, white Santa, please) or revisit the topic on her show, I'll follow-up here on the blog.

Dear Ms. Kelly,

I wrote you earlier regarding your statements about Santa and Jesus being white. I wanted to let you know I posted my letter as an open letter on my blog here: http:/
/danmoriarty.blogspot.com/2013/12/jesus-santa-and-inculturation-open.html. I'll add this - and any response you might deign to send - as updates. 
I saw your comments on the critical response to the segment on your show. You chalked the criticism up to a lack of humor on the part of your critics - whom you also accused of "race-baiting." What we have here, arguably, is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. (Get it? Race humor.)

Webster's: Race-baiting: the unfair use of statements about race to try to influence the actions or attitudes of a particular group of people.
I can understand the original segment on your show being described as race-baiting. I can even imagine a white person feeling that Ms. Harris' original column constituted race-baiting (although "just because it makes you uncomfortable, doesn't mean it has to change"). But the response? It seems rather unfair to use your "powerful Fox News Channel" platform to say something provocative about race - in the interest of "humor," apparently - and then accuse the people who call that inappropriate of unfairly using race in their response.
I have three further responses to your reaction to the critics:
First, you only further highlight your own insensitivity to the complex issue of race when you suggest that your segment was meant as humor, and those who would criticize it are humorless. I guess I kind of get the "humor," such as it was, in putting on concern for the kids in the audience. But do you really think it's funny for a white person (with an entirely white panel of guests) to mock, dismiss, and characterize as "ridiculous" a black writer's reflections on feeling racially excluded at the holidays? And was it really news to you, a major network news anchor, that "race is still (get over it already, right?) an incredibly volatile issue in this country?" That might be part of the problem right there.
Next, you claim you simply "acknowledged, as Harris did, that the most commonly depicted image of Santa, does, in fact, have white skin.” Now, that's not exactly accurate, is it? Your point was to state categorically that Santa "just is white" and ridicule any suggestion that he might be portrayed otherwise. Again, in "jest."
Finally, I realize you probably never actually read my first letter, that it was one among thousands you must have received, and that you weren't referring to me personally when you referred to your critics as humorless, knee-jerk race-baiters. I made a point of explaining I wasn't accusing you of racism. And I appreciate that you admitted (perhaps tongue-in-cheek again?) having learned in the past few days that the color of Jesus' skin is also "far from settled." But it honestly saddens me that you, as a journalist with such a powerful platform and as a fellow-Catholic, would be so dismissive of your critics here, rather than taking this as an opportunity to delve deeper into a fascinating and important topic.

There would be no real need for a mea culpa. You could simply say, "In a light-hearted segment last week, we discussed a Slate column suggesting that Santa should no longer be portrayed as a white man. My comments in that segment angered a lot of people, but also brought up an important conversation about the broader implications of race in our holiday traditions, which we'd like to discuss today." Perhaps the historical, missionary roots of traditional images of Jesus and Santa as white - which I addressed in my previous letter - could serve as a jumping-off point.
Think about it. At worst, you end up saying something else your humorless critics find offensive - digging the hole deeper, but pushing ratings higher! At best, you present your audience with valuable insights into both race relations and Christmas traditions. Just imagine the laughs.
Yours under the mistletoe,
Dan Moriarty
Cochabamba, Bolivia

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Jesus, Santa, and Inculturation: An Open Letter to Fox News' Megyn Kelly

I wrote the following letter to Fox News' Megyn Kelly after an exchange on her show last night in which she, in response to a Slate column by Aisha Harris suggesting a non-race-specific Santa Claus, asserted that "Santa just is white," and added, too, that "Jesus was a white man."  Share it if you'd like - her remarks get at some deep, important issues and I'd love to see them explored more publicly, be it on Fox News or elsewhere.
Dear Ms. Kelly,

Greetings from Cochabamba, where I am a Catholic missioner.

I saw a clip online of your show in which you asserted that both Santa Claus and Jesus are/were white men. I know it's gone viral and I'm sure you are receiving a lot of mail accusing you of racism. I'm not writing to do that. But I do think you likely lack some important understanding of the issue you were attempting to address.
First, let me say that it was clear to me that part of your intention was not to confuse any kids in the audience who might be watching and wondering, "If Santa is a real person, how can someone suggest changing him into something else?" I understand that concern. But perhaps it was unwise to try to address such a sensitive, complex topic as the intersection of race and myth if you felt the need to do so in a way that would not risk confusing the six-year-olds in your audience.

Also, you may give kids too little credit. In my experience, children have a remarkable capacity for accommodating the magical in the context of the real. It would appear, too, that you were mainly concerned about any white kids who might be watching, since lots of kids of different ethnic backgrounds are quite accustomed to a Santa who looks like them, and might have been a lot more confused by your assertion that "Santa just is white" than they were by your mentioning the thesis of Aisha Harris' column. And not only brown kids stood to be confused: I'm Irish-American and I visited a black Santa at a shopping center when I was little, and it didn't bother or confuse me at all. Kids know that there are other kids of all colors and backgrounds. If they can accept elves, omniscience, flying reindeer visiting millions of houses in one night, and a fat man slipping down tiny chimneys, then they can surely accept the idea that, in the inclusive spirit of Christmas and Jesus coming to save everybody, Santa appears to different people in different ways.
Furthermore, I question your assertions about both Santa and Jesus. Historically, it is unlikely that either was "black," as we understand the term. But neither were they "white." Jesus was a Palestinian Jew, St. Nicholas was Turkish, and they were both most likely brown-skinned, like most Middle-Easterners.
We came to imagine both of them as "white" precisely because the church's missionary endeavors have always involved a process of inculturation: as Christianity was spread to different peoples, the traditions and cultures of those people shaped the way the new faith was received, and in turn, shaped Christian tradition itself. Again, because a central point of Christmas and of Christianity is that God came into the world as a person among people, the gospel message was made more powerful by portraying Jesus as looking like the local people wherever the church was growing. (Inculturation is a lot more complex than painting Jesus with local clothes and facial characteristics - which some would argue is more accurately called acculturation - but the images we use are important to the broader process.) Many great works of art not only portray Jesus, Mary, and the apostles as European in appearance, but surround them with medieval and renaissance clothing and architecture. As the number of great and inspiring saints grew, their iconography followed a similar path, as artists re-imagined them according to the ethnicities, styles, and customs of various times and places.

By the time St. Nicholas morphed into Father Christmas, Papa Noel, Sinterklaas, and Santa Claus, he was thoroughly transformed from the historical saint who inspired him. He was adapted to reflect traits and ideas of the people shaping his myth. It seems to me Ms. Harris was simply suggesting a continuation of this process, to reflect the increasing diversity of the society in which we live. We may disagree with the specifics of how to change - I'm not personally a big fan of the penguin idea - but to simply assert that Santa is white is not only factually debatable, but ignores the long and important history of how he came to be.
European Christians (and North America Christians descended from them) have often ignored this history. The very process of inculturation that had helped them to identify so enthusiastically with Christianity was frozen in place and time. Once they painted blue eyes and chestnut hair onto Jesus, the tendency was to carry that image to other lands - Asia, Africa, and the Americas - and present it as exclusively and historically accurate. It's not hard to imagine the ways this image of a white Jesus and saints fed into a larger socio-political assertion of white power and white supremacy.

As a missioner in a country of diverse indigenous and mixed-heritage peoples, I am painfully aware of how important inculturation is, and how alienating the assertion that "Jesus was a white man" can be. Years ago I can remember being told by an old Aymara gentleman in my parish in La Paz during Holy Week that I (not only white and head-and-shoulders taller than any of my neighbors, but sporting longish hair and a beard at the time) should carry the cross through the neighborhood for our Good Friday procession. For years, the neighbors had taken turns, hoisting the cross and walking the way of Jesus' passion, visiting neighbors' homes who had set up small altars of the Stations of the Cross along the route. It is a powerful tradition that has helped Christians around the world for centuries to identify more closely with Christ. Now, here I was, a missionary trying to join the people in their faith journey, and because of my appearance, they wanted me to take their place, relegating them to the role of simple observers. "You have to do it. You look like Jesus," the elder explained. "Actually," I told him, "Jesus probably looked a lot more like you: shorter than me, brown skin - and we don't know what kind of haircut he had." He shook his head. "No, he definitely looked like you. I've seen pictures."
We compromised. I carried the cross one section of the way, but women, men, boys, and girls from the neighborhood carried it to the other 13 stations. It was beautiful. But the words of the elder - and the violent colonial legacy behind them - broke my heart.
I felt those wounds re-opened today when I heard your statements about Santa Claus and Jesus. I hope you can understand that there is a lot more than political correctness or even historical accuracy at play here. I wonder if you might reconsider what you said, and revisit the topic on your show.
Thank you for your attention.

Advent blessings,

Dan Moriarty
Cochabamba, Bolivia

You, too, can write to Megyn Kelly at kelly@foxnews.com. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Closing San Pedro Prison



Recently, the Bolivian government announced plans to close San Pedro Prison in La Paz – one of the most unique prisons in the world. I spent several years working in San Pedro in the late 1990s, and served as National Coordinator of Prison Ministry for the Catholic Church in Bolivia, so a few people have asked me for my thoughts.

First, a bit of background: San Pedro is in the center of the city of La Paz, taking up one square block. Some refer to it as “el panóptico,” but it’s not a true panopticon, and in fact is remarkable not for the omniscient vigilance of prison authorities (there isn't any), but for the relative autonomy of its inmates. It is not atypical of Bolivian prisons, but it’s famous because of its size (second only to Palmasola Prison in Santa Cruz) and its central location in the country’s largest and most-visited city.  San Pedro, like most Bolivian prisons, is based on a kind of penal colony model: inmates cannot leave the outer bounds of the prison, but within its four walls, they are free to move about and interact largely as they please, resulting in a kind of enclosed village with stores, restaurants, sports leagues, cultural activities, and the same socio-economic divisions that mark the world outside. Guards only come into the inner areas of the prison when problems arise, or for a twice-daily roll-call.

Prisoners buy, sell, and rent cells. In a larger institution like San Pedro, this mini real estate market results in some sections, or cell blocks, of the prison being more affluent than others. Some inmates who cannot afford a cell are actually homeless, sleeping in the chapel, in hallways, or on the floors of friends’ cells.

Many prisons in Bolivia have children living in them. If a child’s parents are incarcerated and there is nobody else – no relatives or godparents, say – able to take care of them, the kids stay with their parents in the prison. They leave to go to school and other programs outside, but return in the afternoon to their “home” behind bars. It’s not ideal, but it keeps families intact, and the responsibility – not to mention joy – of parenting gives the parents reason to work toward release and reinsertion. It also creates a general sense of shared responsibility for creating a safe space for families, and residents who are seen as threats to children are dealt with harshly by their fellow inmates.

Most impressive is the inmates’ system of democratic self-governance. Delegates are elected from each section, or from different sectors (e.g. San Sebastián Prison here in Cochabamba has a large carpentry shop, and there is a delegate specifically for that). An overall delegate is elected for the whole prison, as well. These delegates represent their constituencies to prison authorities or to the press, advocating for prisoners’ needs, and coordinate a variety of activities inside the prison. Sections also have elected secretaries for different areas: health (there is an infirmary in San Pedro, but some sections also bring in other doctors to see residents for mild or chronic conditions and general healthcare), maintenance (in San Pedro, the government really only maintains the outer shell of the prison, while inmates pay for and carry out upkeep in each section – fixing bathrooms, painting walls, etc.), culture and education (there are courses offered in conjunction with the Church and local universities, and many sections have their own small libraries or other facilities such as chess clubs), and sports (each section runs its own football club, with a premier team, a second-tier team, and a team for older players; one section, “Cancha,” has a futsal court in its patio and hosts all games and tournaments). There are also inmate tribunals responsible for an internal justice system in which inmates who commit crimes against other inmates are tried and punished without appealing to the prison’s guards. Some of the architects of Bolivia’s new constitution, passed in 2009, were former political prisoners and inmate delegates, and these political structures inside Bolivia’s prisons served as partial inspiration for both the autonomy and community justice statutes of the new magna carta.   

In general, I believe Bolivian prisons are far more humane than prisons in other countries, including the United States. The law states explicitly that the purpose of prisons here is the rehabilitation and reinsertion of inmates. The maximum sentence is thirty years; there is no death penalty. The colony model allows for far less institutionalization, infantilization, and dehumanization of inmates than what is common in the U.S. and elsewhere. Also, Bolivia is not nearly as violent as many other countries. Most inmates are in for drugs, and many of these are low-level “mules.” Many more, especially women, are in for things like bounced checks – essentially debtors prison. The majority of Bolivia’s inmate population has never been sentenced and spends years in prison awaiting trial. This leads to terrible overcrowding – one of the most inhumane elements of most prisons here. The justice system – as distinct from the prison system itself – is awful. “Retardation of justice,” the eternal backlog of court cases, is one of the worst problems. But rampant corruption and general ineptitude also serve to cripple the system. And the police who guard the prisons are also plagued by the twin curses of corruption and ineptitude.

A lot of people know about San Pedro from the book Marching Powder by an inmate I used toknow, Tanzanian Thomas McFadden, and his co-author, Australian Rusty Young. I am not a fan of the book, as I think it distorts reality and aims to sensationalize rather than to highlight all that is truly remarkable about San Pedro and, more importantly, the inmates there. Young met McFadden via the illegal prison tours he used to offer foreign tourists, and the book parallels those tours in many ways: it invites its audience to ogle the inmates in morbid fascination, rather than to empathize, admire, and seek deeper solidarity with them. The level of violence in the prison is exaggerated, implying several murders a month when the reality was closer to one every 18 months or so. Also, a major “highlight” of the book is the unveiling of alleged cocaine production labs inside the prison. I had never heard of such labs, and have asked friends who were in San Pedro at the time and they confirm to me that they didn’t exist (although the book features photos of them). I wonder if they weren’t a fiction created by McFadden and the authorities who were paid off to allow his tourism business to flourish. The drug of choice among San Pedro’s addicts was cocaine base paste – a precursor of powder cocaine that is as concentrated and addictive as crack, but also filthy with toxic chemicals that are later cooked out of the drug in the production processes for powder and rock cocaine. Base is rampant in San Pedro. But powder cocaine is also available there. Street dealers from La Paz get their supplies from the prison’s inmates, as they are cheaper inside the prison. I was always given to understand that these drugs were brought into the prison by the guards themselves. Stolen from supplies seized by police on the outside, prisoners and guards alike could make a handsome profit off the drugs while still maintaining prices lower than those on the outside. I can’t prove these allegations, so perhaps the labs also existed. But it seems unlikely to me that McFadden and his dealer friends would show these labs to unvetted gringo tourists while effectively keeping them secret from their fellow inmates. It makes more sense to me to assume they were created as both a sensational stop on McFadden’s tours, and a way of keeping his cocaine-dealing police contacts out of the story. At any rate, McFadden’s tourism business was not at all popular among the general population in San Pedro. Inmates were made to feel like animals in a zoo, and resented that a relatively well-off foreign inmate would show them off as such. I believe the book largely serves the same purpose.

So, back to the news. In a BBC story, the head of Bolivia’s prison system cites corruption and the abuse of children – as well as overcrowding – as reasons for shuttering San Pedro. The prisoners themselves are protesting the planned closure, so any claims that this is better for them should be taken with that grain of salt. Admittedly, I’ve been away from San Pedro and regular work in prisons for several years. But I’ve stayed in touch with friends who know the system, and I have colleagues, including some of the volunteers I oversee, who continue to work in prisons here in Cochabamba. So, here are my initial thoughts upon reading the news of the planned closure:

  1. I haven’t heard good things about the current director of the prison system, Ramiro Llanos. While he claims to seek the social reinsertion of inmates as a priority, it is telling that whenever I’ve talked recently with Church people doing the work of rehabilitation and accompanying inmates in their reintegration into society, they’ve complained about him, saying he is very rigid, unsupportive, and concerned with “security” above all else. A friend in the government who knows the prison system well has told me the same. 
  2. Governments have been threatening to close San Pedro for years, both because it’s an embarrassment to them to have government corruption, mismanagement, and injustice on display in such a visible way, and because the prison sits on prime real estate on a central and otherwise-attractive plaza. 
  3. Authorities claim corruption and the abuse of children as reasons for the closure. Both are real problems, but A) they don’t seem to be addressing the general corruption of the police who oversee the prisons – they’re pretending the problem has something to do with San Pedro specifically, when the problem is actually just more prominently on display there; and B) while it does sound like there was one tragic and sensational case recently of a child allegedly being raped in the prison, this also comes at a time when the UN and others are criticizing the presence of children in Bolivia's prisons in general; it's a very complex issue and usually the critiques fail to take into account things like the humanizing effect of inmates being with family, or the lack of positive alternatives available for these kids.
  4. Authorities are also citing overcrowding, but they don't seem to be doing anything about the real cause of that, which is the "retardation of justice" - the fact that most of Bolivia's inmate population has not been tried, and people spend years in prison awaiting sentences.
  5. There seems to be a focus on "security" which both ignores the corruption issues (as mentioned above) and risks losing all that is unique and very positive about Bolivia's prison system. I fear a continued move toward a more U.S.-style penal system.
  6. I don't know much about some of the smaller jails they are planning to move guys to in La Paz. A couple are new. I hope they're decent facilities, but my fear is that they'll be less humane and simply receive less attention as a kind of tiny urban gulag archipelago than they do currently with everyone packed into one big, famous prison. Also, a lot of San Pedro’s inmates will apparently be moved to Chonchocoro, a maximum security prison about an hour outside the city in the altiplano, and I think that’s a bad move, a) because Chonchocoro is a very harsh place to be both in terms of climate/altitude (it’s close to 14,000 feet above sea level and bitter cold), and because of isolation and distance from families, and friends; and b) because the one nice thing about Chonchocoro has always been that it's one of the very few Bolivian prisons (if not the only one) with good infrastructure, healthy meals, and no overcrowding, and now I fear it will start to be overcrowded and conditions there will decline.
  7. This is just the latest in a series of government policy decisions that risk hurting the people rather than deal with the (admittedly gargantuan) twin problems of corruption and ineptitude in the police force and other related government agencies (such as Customs).From the BBC article linked above:

“We have had enough of abuses being committed inside the jail,” [prisons director Llanos] told the BBC.
We cannot control the police [emphasis mine]. They have orders to stop drugs and alcohol from entering the prison, but to no avail.
So we will close down the prison altogether.”

I don't envy anyone the job of fixing these institutions, but it has to be done, and so far many of this government's fixes are short-sighted at best. In a strange way, the police and military have a kind of invisible stranglehold on what is, on the surface, a democratic government in Bolivia. The government needs them, and – especially given Bolivia’s history of coups d’état and military dictatorships – fears alienating them. But they are, indeed, rife with corruption and hobbled by ineptitude, and it’s hard to imagine an effective clean-up that doesn’t essentially involve disassembling them completely and building them back up from zero. The political will to undertake such a radical reform simply doesn’t exist. And so, the government continues to address symptoms rather than root causes. Unable to stem the flow of contraband gasoline into neighboring Peru and Brazil, they cut government fuel subsidies, only to reverse course after massive public protests (see here, here, here, and here!). Unable to stop incoming contraband and tax evasion on imports, they’ve responded by multiplying the bureaucracy of the nation’s Customs service, creating more opportunities for corruption and poor service, and placing an albatross around the neck of small businesses with any international components. And now, unable to stop drug-running, bribery, and other abuses in the nation’s prisons, they will close San Pedro. 

To be fair, the government is not monolithic, and I think professed intentions to end corruption are often sincere. But they will never actually be effective if they can’t tackle the problems in the nation’s police force and related institutions. The prison system is administered by a civilian agency headed by Mr. Llanos, but the day-to-day running of the prisons depends on the police. It must be frustrating for Mr. Llanos, as it has been for his predecessors, to experience such impotence in the face of police malfeasance. But I don’t think simply closing one prison and moving inmates to others is the solution Mr. Llanos pretends it is. 

On a related note, report after report confirm that the worst violence in Bolivia is violence against women and children. In homes and streets and chicherías  all over Bolivia, men victimize women and kids with impunity. Beatings, rape, and even femicide are horrifyingly common, and too seldom prosecuted. Of course, prison authorities and inmate representatives alike have a responsibility to prevent such violence within the country's jails. But I fear one controversial case in one prison is being used to distract from the broader issue. Closing San Pedro does little if anything to make women and children safer.

It will be interesting to follow this story in the coming days/weeks. It looks like San Pedro will stop receiving new inmates in July, and will close over the course of the next year through releases and transfers. At least that's the plan for now. As events continue to unfold, I hope the voices of inmates will be heard.