Alternatives to Violence (AVP) in a Honduran Prison
by Shirley Way
In January, with funding from NYYM’s Witness Activities Fund (which is funded by the Sharing Fund) and from Farmington Scipio Regional Meeting’s Surplus Fund, Allie Prescott and I traveled to Honduras. Allie is the Communication Specialist for Friends Peace Teams and an AVP Facilitator from Los Angeles. Our faith tradition says ministers never travel alone. We need an elder to anchor us, to hold us to Truth. Allie was my elder and I was hers as we each ministered.
El Porvenir Prison is located near La Ceiba on the Atlantic coast of Honduras. The Alternatives to Violence program is anchored by strong women: Ondina Murillo and Judith Aguilar are Mennonite, and Coni Lustenberger, originally from Sweden, moved to Honduras twelve years ago and is a yoga instructor. They, together with the inside team of facilitators, have trained more than half of the prison’s 400 men in AVP workshops and it has changed the culture of the prison.
On a tour of the prison, we saw that the men sleep in tight quarters. Each “cell” has four beds that are each stacked four or five high, housing between 16 and 20 men. There is not enough space to sit up on the beds. They are “locked in” from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day. There is only a sheet of fabric for a wall between the “cell” and the lively communal space that is the corridor between cells. There are no guards on the floor of the prison. They stand in stations atop the walls that surround the scene. Incarcerated men with sticks keep the order, ostensibly. Meals are beans and rice three times a day. No vegetables; no fruit.
Allie, Ondina, Judith and I facilitated an AVP Trauma Awareness and Resilience Workshop with fifteen men. Five of the men are AVP facilitators. All of the facilitators and most in the room are former gang members. Many showed, or spoke of, signs of traumatic stress—shaking, hypervigilance, inability to sleep, nightmares, etc. No one wants to kill or torture or extort. It is a life they are forced into.
All of the facilitators gave video interviews for the Friends Peace Team’s website. Luis spoke of his life as a leader in an international gang engaged in kidnapping, extortion and assassination. While at another prison, Luis led a revolt with eighty men armed with AK-47s. He was subsequently transferred to El Porvenir where he found AVP. He speaks of his life has having two parts: Before, and Now. During the workshop Luis was grieving the death of his nephew who had been drawn into gang life.
Rival gangs keep track of who is incarcerated where and they frequently wait along the long dirt road to the prison and kill family members coming to visit their loved ones. In the taxi, at that particular spot, Ondina, Judith, Allie, the driver and I pray together, hands on one another’s shoulder or thigh.
It is truly a gift to do this work, to be a part.