In an overcrowded and under-resourced women’s prison south of Lima, Peru, Teresa and a fellow inmate hover close to a crop of potted plants that share the room. She’s orienting the newcomer to the variety of vegetables, flowers and herbs, how much water and light they need, things that could harm them, treatments they like and that help them grow.
Coordinator of this plant pavilion, Teresa trains other prisoners who want to take part in the new gardening project at the Chorrillos Annex Prison for Women. Sister Lilma Calsin Collazos, CSC, who provides a critically needed health ministry at the facility, introduced the gardening project as another component of care for the inmates.
“We are responding to an invitation to always ... listen to ... those who suffer the most and are forgotten, to accompany them in their search for justice and peace.”
—Sister Lilma Calsin Collazos, CSC
Prison life, as one would expect, imposes stressors that impact development, mental health and physical well-being. And at the Chorrillos facility, visits are limited, resources few and health care less-than-adequate or efficient in addressing the various issues that the prison population presents.Also, though very young children may live with their mothers in the prison, this ends when the child turns 3 years old. Given all these factors, many of the inmates face overwhelming feelings of depression, lose interest in life, and often contemplate suicide. Teresa lost herself in such despair after separating from her 3-year-old son. With no other family to care for him, he had been taken to a children’s shelter. The two will not be reunited until her release — in 12 years. Torn apart by grief, Teresa had stopped eating, unwilling to go on living without her child.
Looking to reach these women, Sister Lilma and her three-person ministry team surfaced the idea for the gardening project. The idea presented multi-dimensional benefits: The practice of gardening would help the women “develop and express their human abilities and skills and also [serve] as a catharsis for their tension and stress,” says Sister Lilma. “The imprisoned woman suffers a lot because her relationship capacity is limited and does not allow her to fully develop her being as a woman and mother.”After repeated petitions to the prison, Sister Lilma was finally allowed to go forward with the project. A grant from the Ministry With the Poor Fund supports the effort, which provides the women with a healthy mental outlet and encourages them to seek life, in all circumstances. Courses and workshops on ecological sustainability and the importance of caring for the natural world also open a new way for these women to see themselves. “The women happily recognize that they are a living part of the entire ecosystem,” Sister Lilma says.
Hope for all
From that identity as an essential part of God’s creation, blossom hope and faith. These virtues are “strengthened and renewed by activities that communicate the Good News in their lives,” says Sister Lilma. Such revelations “surprise and captivate them,” she adds, “especially when those activities are accompanied by sacred reflections, where God reveals that he is always with them.”
The effort elaborates many of the Laudato Si' messages and calls: caring for the poor and the Earth, the significance of ecological education and the sustenance of ecological spirituality. “We are responding to an invitation to always be alert and available to listen to the loud cries of those who suffer the most and are forgotten, to accompany them in their search for justice and peace,” Sister Lilma explains. “In this sense, the prison moves us to look with the eyes of faith and hope at the efforts made by women in prison to change their wrong lifestyles.”
Bud of new life
Today, when the team visits the prison, the women prisoners “proudly and joyfully show us their achievements,” shares Sister Lilma. “Each twig, each bud, each flower in their pots reminds them that they are generators of life in abundance.”Today, with the end goal of reuniting with her son, Teresa embraces a new outlook for a brighter future. Getting there, however, required accepting her situation as a consequence of her own actions and the desire and resolve not to repeat them. For Teresa to achieve this, Sister Lilma says, “She knows she will need to be a better person, a better woman, a better mother and a better creation of God. Today Teresa is beginning to see life with different eyes; her inner world is changing.”
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