Monday, April 19, 2010

American reflects on life behind Mexican prison bars

The article below was written by DALE HOYT PALFREY and published in the Guadalajara Reporter on April 16.

Free at last, Rebecca Roth reveals the good, the bad and the ugly of her four-year stint inside the Puente Grande penitentiary.

Two years ago Rebecca Roth and a fellow inmate at the Puente Grande penitentiary started up the production of handmade dolls as an in-house cottage industry. She is more committed than ever to keeping the project rolling now that she has regained her freedom.

These days Rebecca Roth starts each morning with a strenuous workout on a stationary bike. She follows the routine in an effort to gain the upper hand in a friendly exercise endurance challenge she has going with sister Barbara Moodhe and above all, to rebuild her health and vitality.

After cooling off she sits down to a leisurely and nutritious breakfast while taking in a soul-soothing view of Lake Chapala landscapes in the full bloom of Spring.

Just three weeks ago she was living through an entirely different scenario behind the walls of the Puente Grande penitentiary.

During her four years of incarceration she inhabited the cramped and noisy quarters of prison dorms, made up of tiny rooms that usually housed nearly double the number of people they were designed to hold. The largest dorm is equipped with two bathrooms, with a total of four toilet stalls and four showers shared by up to 200 women.

Roth’s days at Puente Grande began with a 6 a.m. wake up call, followed at 7:30 with line up for the first of four daily inmate roll calls. Afterwards she and fellow prisoners would scrounge up a cup of instant coffee to tide them over until the food cart rolled by her cramped dorm to deliver breakfast.

The standard morning fare consisted of lots of tortillas and beans, often with eggs on the side. Fresh fruit was a scarce commodity, kept off the menu to prevent prisoners from squirreling it away to manufacture bootleg liquor. Bottled water could be obtained for a fee, as an alternative to the vile tap water available for free consumption.

After breakfast the inmates are allowed to wander the enclosed prison grounds and busy themselves pretty much as they please. Most spend time at work assignments and other activities that help them rack up credit to obtain sentence reductions.

The system of benefits fits into the model of a prison as a social re-adaptation and rehabilitation center, Roth notes. “You have to cover all specified areas — work, schooling, psychology and integration — for it to count towards early release. It can add up to a 30 percent reduction in time served for common crimes and 60 percent off sentences for federal convictions.”

Roth says that staying busy helped her stay grounded during her prison ordeal. “With lots of things going on, the days passed by quickly and gave me positive outlets.”

At first she spent many hours reading books brought in by her sister and other constant supporters. She is currently starting to reread favorite titles that were sent back out to be kept in Moodhe’s home library. She also dedicated many full days to painting and churning out handmade crafts. During the long months she was behind bars her art work was shown in four separate exhibitions at Guadalajara’s Ex-Convento del Carmen.

Today, the walls of Moodhe’s lakeside home are covered with her sister’s paintings. Roth says each piece stirs up bittersweet memories, reflecting her state of mind at different time points in her prison experience. There are a couple of haunting landscapes showing the two sisters side by side, as well as lively abstracts and brightly colored batiks that seem to represent inner longings and desperate flights of fantasy. The artist has plans for a retrospective exhibit stowed on the back burner.

Rebecca Roth celebrated her release from prison at a gathering of friends including defense lawyers Isidoro de la Garza and Javier Arciniega who were instrumental in springing her from the Mexican criminal justice system.

Roth also took advantage of personal development programs at Puente Grande, signing up for psychology, literature and poetry workshops that helped her maintain emotional and spiritual balance while boosting her writing abilities and proficiency in Spanish.

She contributed a number of English poems, with translation into Spanish, to the first two editions of Rosas en el Desierto, collections of the inmates’ verses compiled by workshop guide Arturo Gallegos and published under the auspices of the state government.

At the instigation of literature teacher Maria Luisa Burillo, Roth took on the daunting task of translating a full-length motivational book on universal values. Getting the English version published is another item now on her to-do list.

To her credit, Roth pushed some of her own initiatives inside Puente Grande that were well received by prison authorities. The English language classes she started were qualified to fulfill the education requirements in the good behavior benefit system.

Dearest to her heart, however is the Doll Factory project Roth and fellow inmate Esmeralda Hernandez launched in 2008 as an in-house cottage industry. Each of the whimsical cloth figures is a one-of-a-kind piece that showcases the creative imagination of the person who created it. Most of the materials used in making the dolls are acquired through donations. Lakesider Ann Dyer provided a sewing machine for the project.

To date more than 100 dolls have been sold to prison staff, other inmates, visitors and outsiders, at prices ranging from 250 to 1,000 pesos. They are also being marketed through the Diane Pearl Gallery in Ajijic and direct sales via emails requests addressed to .

Roth is still committed to fostering the Doll Factory. She underlines that proceeds go back to the dozen inmates who are actively participating in the workshop, with ten percent set aside off the top for a fund tapped to purchase clothing, personnel supplies and toys for the infants who live together with their imprisoned mothers.

A prison volunteer delivered a brand new batch of the figures at the Freedom party celebrated in Roth’s honor last weekend. Nearly half were immediately scooped up by the guests in attendance.

Roth is still not completely out of the legal woods, according to her defense attorneys Isidoro de la Garza and Javier Arciniega. As a matter of course, federal prosecutors have filed an appeal for a reversal of the release order issued in her benefit late last month. Although the lawyers believe that the ruling will hold, there is still a remote possibility that the court will order a retrial of the entire case.

As she awaits the verdict, Roth maintains a surprisingly positive outlook, even under the weight of deep feelings of having been the victim of gross injustice. Her most abiding resentment is against United States diplomatic agents who she believes were delinquent in helping protect her rights. “They did almost nothing to help me. It seems that’s their job,” she observes. “One consular official told me that I had lost my rights when I crossed the border. The consulate didn’t give me their listing of registered lawyers until October 2007, more than a year and a half after I was arrested.”

Now that she is free, Roth looks back on her experience as some kind of bizarre nightmare. “I was down the rabbit hole with no way to get out. All of a sudden the time came and I popped right out. It doesn’t make sense yet, but I believe it was all for a reason. I’m going take the time to pick up the pieces of my life… one piece at a time.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Rebecca:

My name is Teri and I thank you for your insight to what life is like in this prison.

On September 4, 2009, a friend of mine traveled to Puerto Vallarta for vacation and was taken in to custody for failing to 'make disclosures' at the border.

She was transferred to Puente Grande in March 2010.

I've had a tough time trying to get information and your blog has helped me dearly.

I am very sorry for what happened to you. The details of your story were eerily alike those of Brenda Martin's - how you were picked up and detained.

I do hope you are okay - I can't imagine what you have lived through.

Teri Richardson, Canada