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Mexico: the importance of supporting prisoners’ families

06-03-2009 Feature

Women often face major problems when a member of their family is imprisoned, especially a man. Eva learned all about this when her husband was arrested for taking part in demonstrations in the Mexican city of Oaxaca during 2006. She agreed to tell us her story, recounting with great dignity her suffering and the difficulties she faced during this period of separation.

She recalled that the priorities at the time were protecting her son from the tense situation in Oaxaca, finding a way of visiting her husband and ensuring that he was well. The pain of uncertainty as to the fate of her husband and the future of her family were ever-present.

Shortly after her husband was arrested, he was transferred to the Altiplano high-security prison in Mexico State. This event marked the start of a long series of legal and administrative formalities that Eva had to negotiate before she could visit him for the first time. “In order to visit my husband, I had to obtain proof that we were married, because we had only got married in church,” she recalled. In Oaxaca, this was a difficult, bureaucratic process. Finally, after much effort, Eva obtained the precious document.

But once she had overcome this obstacle, she had to find the funds to pay for her trip. Oaxaca is 400 km from Mexico State, and Eva made the round trip twice a month.

Adriana Alarcón is the deputy regional delegate at the ICRC’s Mexico delegation: “In this sort of case, the most pressing needs are economic. With very few exceptions, detainees are male, and it is they who are the breadwinners. When they are arrested, the economic burden falls on their wives or mothers. This is an additional load to bear on top of looking after the children.”

Eva was six months pregnant, which meant that having to take on sole responsibility for a family put her in an especially vulnerable position. Like many prisoners’ relatives, Eva was unprepared for supporting a family.

It took her eight days to complete all the formalities that the authorities demanded. Finally, on 12 De cember, she arrived at the prison, expecting to be reunited with her husband. However, the visit soon turned into something out of a particularly tortuous novel.

“With all the papers they asked for, it was a week before I could see him. They kept saying ‘tomorrow, tomorrow.’ It just went on like that. And when I did manage to see him, on 19 December, I had to wait all day. I got there in the morning and I finally saw him at 7 p.m.”

Eva visited her husband on a number of occasions over the next two months. The constant travelling, coupled with prison access procedures such as body searches and x-rays, was putting her baby at risk, and the delivery had to be brought forward. After the birth, Eva had to provide stimulation therapy to help her baby recover.

The ICRC visited Eva’s husband periodically while he was in prison to ensure that he was being held under acceptable conditions of detention. The organization also reimbursed the costs of Eva’s trips between Oaxaca and Mexico State.

“The ICRC considers it essential to restore contact between a prisoner and their family.” explained Adriana Alarcón. “It’s not just a question of being allowed to make visits; families have to be able to make the necessary journeys. Sometimes economic factors get in the way. The ICRC therefore makes confidential approaches to the authorities when family visits are refused or restricted. And in Mexico, the organization covers the costs of two visits per month.”

Showing great courage, Eva overcame her difficulties. After her husband was released, a new phase of her life could begin. There are thousands of women like Eva around the world, women whose lives change dramatically the day their husbands, fathers or sons are arrested.