By Kary Vannice
For our women’s issue several years ago (2017), I wrote an article about the mistreatment of inmates in women’s prisons in Mexico. My research uncovered unspeakable human rights abuses and a judicial system that turned a blind eye to reported sexual assault and torture. Many of the accounts were too stomach-turning to include in the article, and I felt deeply for these women. Their stories stuck with me because even law-breaking inmates deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
There are 102 women’s jails and prisons in Mexico, one of the toughest of which is in Ecatepec de Morelos, in the state of Mexico on the outskirts of Mexico City. This penitentiary houses several hundred women and many report living conditions that are borderline inhumane. Some have reported having to sleep standing up because there is no room for them to sit or lie down at night. Any possession, even a toothbrush, must be carried on one’s person at all times, or it will be immediately stolen.
It is a harsh environment filled with hardened criminals with hardened attitudes toward life and everyone around them. Forced to live in survival mode 24/7, there is no time to contemplate or create community, and vulnerability could mean death.
This is not the kind of environment that seems ripe for spiritual transformation work, unless you’re two Mexican women with a shared dream of helping this largely forgotten and underserved population.
Enter the Give to Give Foundation, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in New York that supports an organizational change technique called neuro-change solutions, based on the work of Dr. Joe Dispenza, a neuroscientist, researcher, teacher, and best-selling author. As the pandemic closed organizations down, Dispenza became interested in using his approach in prisons. Rose Caiola, Chair of the Board of Directors of Give to Give was more interested in working with women in prison. Through a series of coincidental meetings, Give to Give began a pilot project with at the penitentiary in Ecatepec – a simple three-day workshop to help rehabilitate and bring positive change to the lives of female convicts living in some of the worst conditions imaginable. The project was headed up by Verónica Ontiveros, who is with Give to Give in Mexico, and Sonia Peña García, a certified NCS consultant based in Monterrey.
It may seem that three days would not be nearly enough to change the mindset of someone who had been incarcerated for decades, attempted suicide multiple times, or sold their own child for grocery money, but, in fact, the opposite was true. The depraved conditions offered the perfect fertile ground for life-changing insights, self-forgiveness, and joy to bloom once more.
Twenty-eight women participated in the pilot project. Over the three days, they learned how to shift out of survival mode by releasing emotions like shame, blame, selfishness, anger, hatred, and resentment, and take 100% responsibility for their lives and their circumstances.
Slowly, the women began to laugh, trust, and smile again. One woman said, “I haven’t laughed in years. I didn’t even remember what it felt like to smile.” She was moved to tears just by seeing her own smiling face in the mirror again. Something had awakened in her, an inner knowing, an inner light.
At the end of the training, another woman raised her hand and exclaimed. “I finally got it! It’s not about having freedom outside. Freedom is a feeling. It’s a state of mind. So, if I think and feel that I am free, then I’m free here, even in prison.”
Each day, the women were also taught how to quiet their minds and meditate on the feelings of freedom, joy, and inner peace so that they could feel more in control of their lives again.
Twenty days after the three-day workshop, organizers returned to the prison for a surprise visit to see if the participants had integrated what they had learned into their daily lives. Upon arrival, they discovered that two of the participants had been released for good behavior and that every other woman that remained had been completely transformed. Their faces were brighter, they looked happier, they were more open and accepting of others around them. They were genuinely living examples of what they had learned. So much so that other inmates were requesting to take part in the next workshop.
Many of the women also reported improved relationships with their families on the outside and had eagerly shared what they had learned with their children, parents, husbands, and extended family.
Because of the success of the pilot project, Give to Give is now planning to expand the project to other women’s prisons in several other states in Mexico; they have the support of prison officials, who also noticed the change in the participants immediately, even though the conditions around them had not changed.
These 28 women, who were living in the very worst of conditions, now understand that it’s not the world around you that has to change for you to feel free and happy; it’s your inner world that must change first. That is where the true power lies to control your environment.