Anna Vogt is the Latin America and Caribbean Regional Advocacy and Context Analyst. This reflection was originally published on Anna’s personal blog.
Going to jail is harrowingly boring. The evening before my friend Larisa sets off to visit Jorge, I accompany her as she checks off the visiting requirements. Everything must be perfectly contained to get inside. We buy toilet paper, laundry soap, and fried chicken to pack into a transparent plastic container no bigger than four litres. Larisa prints off a copy of Jorge’s appeal and makes a magnified, laminated version of her ID document to leave at the front gate of the prison.
Early in the morning, we navigate the trasmilieno to the bus station and settle in for a three hour ride through the Boyacense countryside. Larisa removes her earrings and her facial piercings on the bus, winching in pain as she pulls out her her nose ring: no metal is permitted inside. There is a momentary pause in the routine trip when the bus driver announces the stop for “all those will be staying at the jail,” and two English speaking blondes walk down the aisle.
Larisa goes inside and I settle in at a table in front of the tiny store next to the prison to wait.
Four hours stretch out like an eternity.
I read, I write, I eat bags of chips and stare at the fried chicken heads in the glass case next to the highway. At 11:30, I hear the store patrons talking about me. A Canadian is sitting out front! The teenage daughter of the house comes out and, with barely a word, takes her picture with me. At 12:20, the store owner walks over and we chat about a man she once knew from Switzerland who could eat eight tamales in a single sitting. At 1:10, I pass the next level of Candy Crush. At 2:15, another woman attending the store puts on ballenato over the speakers. The off-duty guards have finished their Sunday afternoon beers and left with flirtatious smiles. Her chores of collecting buckets of water from the jail well are done.
Now there is only waiting.
The attendant comes outside and sways to the music. She tells me about moving from Santander to Boyaca three months ago, and how everything is different now. She is lonely and bored: missing her food, her music, her family, her culture. She snaps into action only when the long stream of women finally begin to file out of the prison at 3:10. In the sudden flurry of activity that greets the end of visiting, she tells me to get on the bus first for a good seat. I forget to say goodbye, but watch from the bus window as she unlocks the storage room built into the store and pulls the purses and bags, handing them back to the visiting women in exchange for crumpled bills.
There is another woman from the south of Bogota waiting with me for visiting hours to end. Her documentation was incorrect and she was not able to enter the jail. She paces back and forth, inside, then outside, seated, then standing. As the clock crawls towards 3:00 pm, and the end of visiting, she asks me over and over to tell her the time. At five to three, she slides into silent weeping, requesting the time with tears streaming down her face. We don’t ask each other questions about what we are doing next to the jail, about who we hold in hearts, because the answers are too private, but at this moment, the grief of waiting becomes public.
The mundane rhythms of imprisonment encircle all our lives.
Yet four hours is nothing compared to the daily rhythm of waiting on the other side of the barbed wire. Jorge and I are able to talk briefly throughout the following week. I ask him about his day. All days are the same, he tells me. I’m not sure how to respond. My instinct is to be practical, to give suggestions and reading material, but what do I know about the monotony of 24 hours, turned into 3 years, turned into the threat of 39 more? Instead, I ask questions and try to be present, to hold his name within a few moments of the activities of my days.
The day after the jail, I attend an unending conversation on reconciliation at the Javeriana University. The facilitator asks the state representative about experiences of reconciliation and I whisper to my neighbour that she will mention Mampujan. I am not disappointed. She begins her discourse gushing about collective reparations processes and Mampujan’s decision to publicly forgive their perpetrators in 2010. She speaks about her emotion of seeing the community offer their collective desires for reconciliation. I can’t stop thinking about Jorge, part of a non-state sanctioned process, also asking for reparations, half an hour away down the highway from Mampujan. Instead a of national peace prize, Jorge is awarded a prison sentence, yet no one gushes about community leaders in jail. Rather, the repeated message is to regulate demands for recognition, or you will never be free. The talk of reconciliation feels as mind numbing and as false as the giant laminated ID document needed for prison visiting hours.
The cold Boyaca breeze feels far away from the Montes de Maria, yet I know that on the other side of the mountains, there are communities and family members also holding Jorge’s name. Instead of the artificiality of a conference room or the devastating boredom of pacing outside of prison, they are using the wait to come together, turning private pain into collective action. To wait means to hope. Despite the fear of further imprisonment or continued stigmatization, people gather, the same way that they have gathered throughout the history of conflict in the Montes de Maria, to do what they can, with what they have: creativity over boredom. Jail walls and patterns of conflict may separate, but the wait draws us close to one another, in an attempt to change the rhythms of waiting into resolutions.
We refuse to allow our hope to be imprisoned or our desire for lives lived with dignity to be small enough, tidy enough, packaged enough, to fit into a cell forever.
In support of Jorge and the communities of the Alta Montaña, consider adding your name to this petition demanding truth and justice in Jorge’s case.