In late March, an SOAW delegation visited El Salvador.The delegation had many moving meetings and events but was especially touched by the stories of impoverished mothers and women serving lengthy prison sentences as a result of having had miscarriages or stillbirths. Roy Bourgeois had heard the stories of these women and requested to visit them, which he and five others of the delegation were able to do.Here are some of their stories:
Esperanza (name changed to protect her identity) is from rural El Salvador. She is very shy but in her eyes and her face we can see her intense pain.She has one son and was pregnant with her second child when she started bleeding heavily.She sought medical attention and was accused of abortion and then aggravated homicide, even though she had simply miscarried.She has now spent 8 years in prison and not been able to see her son the entire time. This causes her great pain.His grandmother is caring for him. Maria has 22 more years to go and will have missed her son’s entire childhood by the time she is set to be released.
Alba was five months pregnant when she received the news about the death of her mother and this caused her to go into shock and miscarry. She began bleeding and she fainted.She has two daughters that are in their grandparents’ care as Alba has been in prison for 5 years. While in jail her only brother died and she could not be in his funeral.Alba said that most of the times she doesn’t want to talk about what happened to her because it is too painful. In a quiet voice she told us that the women imprisoned for miscarriage are threatened and intimidated by the guards and told they should not be talking about their situation, especially when people from out of the country are in solidarity with them. Her homicide sentence has so many irregularities that it even refers to a male involved in a shooting, not a woman who lost a baby, as if it had been copy and pasted from another homicide case.
Francisca is 31 years old and has been in jail for 8 years.She has one son and in 2007 she was eagerly awaiting her second baby.She planned her pregnancy and was excited to have her second child. But she will never forget what happened to her on July 13, 2007.She was nearing the end of her ninth month of pregnancy and was dreaming about her new baby.Her family was also happily looking forward to the baby.That day she started feeling strong pain. She was at work so she went home to find someone to go to the hospital with her, but nobody was there. The contractions increased and she was alone so she called the police to come help her get to the hospital.She waited but the police did not arrive.It was a rainy late afternoon and it began to get dark.Still waiting for the police to come, she slipped heading to the bathroom and subsequently fainted as the baby came out. When she came to, she was in jail. The police – whom she had called to come take her to the hospital – eventually came but upon finding her passed out took her to jail and accused her of abortion.Apart from the horrific trauma of having lost her baby during childbirth, she was then accused of aggravated homicide and sentenced to decades in jail.
Isabel is just 30 years old but has already spent 12 of those years in jail. When Isabel entered the jail she was beaten by the other inmates. She miscarried during her first pregnancy and due to her 30-year sentence, she is sad she will never have the opportunity to have a child.
Finally we hear from Maria Teresa, 33 years old and sentenced to the longest time in jail – 40 years. She is sentenced to 40 years in jail. She is from Mejicanos, San Salvador. “Nothing is impossible for God” she said and she is hopeful that she will get out of this place. She recalls that very early in the morning of November 24, 2011 she felt like going to the bathroom when she saw that she was profusely bleeding. She fainted and her family called for help. She remembers waking up at the hospital and being told her that she has being accused of aggravated murder. She was imploring “I did not kill anyone”. She had not even know she was pregnant. Maria Teresa has another child, 9 years old who is in the care of a grandparent. Maria Teresa is very worried about her child because she doesn’t know what can happen to him if something goes wrong with the elderly grandparent. She wants to hug her son, she wants to be with him. With a so much pain in her voice she thanks us for our visit. Most of the women do not receive visitors. They are from families with very low income and just getting to the jail for a visit requires resources and money to travel.
When the time for the visit was over, we watched the 5 women return to their cells we felt like our hearts were also imprisoned.
The common denominator with all the women we met was poverty and lack of access to medical care.Many times it was the very police or hospital they hoped would help them get medical care that led to their imprisonment.For more background on these women and the law that is (mis)used to imprison them, read this Los Angeles Times article.
On April 23, 2015, 21 year old Carmelina Perez, who had been sentenced to 30 years in prison was found not guilty in a new trial and given her freedom after over a year in prison. Her lawyers had been able to get a re-trial because of irregularities in the original trial. On February 20, Guadalupe Vasquez was freed — after having spent 7 years in jail — when she was pardoned. Read Guadalupe’s story here.