Prison and the pandemic: freedom, according to Chiapas indigenous prisoners

▲ Exterior of Chiapas State Prison Number 5 in the municipality of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Photo: Elio Henríquez.

By: Al-Dabi Olvera *

The Covid-19 infection of eight indigenous activists in a small San Cristóbal de las Casas prison and the subsequent outbreak of hunger strikes in prisons de throughout Chiapas, once again lift the veil from the structure of the prison system: a racist and classist institution of capture and extermination. At the same time, they amplify the scolding voice of those who have spent decades fighting for their freedom.

Since the explosion of the 1994 Zapatista insurrection, hundreds of indigenous peoples have been imprisoned as part of a counter-insurgency operation. Collectives like The Voice of Cerro Hueco [1] and The Voice of El Amate proliferated in the prisons and became spaces of denunciation through which all the captured Zapatistas were released. Then, in 2013, the struggle for the freedom of the Tzotzil professor Alberto Patishtán resonated internationally. That tradition of resistance continues in 2020 with organizations like Solidarity with the Voice of El Amate, Voice of Indigenous in Resistance, True Voice of El Amate and Viniketik (indigenous men) in Resistance.

On May 15 and 16, all the members of Solidarity with the Voice of El Amate, prisoners at the Center for Social Reinsertion of those Sentenced (Cerss, its initials in Spanish) Number 5 in San Cristóbal, presented Covid-19 symptoms: fever, headache, chills and runny nose. The Tzotzil activists were isolated in the infirmary under lock and key. The authorities tested them for Covid-19: all tested positive. Professor Alberto Patishtán warned that in the Cerss 5, where he himself was a prisoner, there are no sanitary or medical conditions to care for the sick.

“What it shows us is contempt for those who speak Tzotzil, who are prisoners for not knowing how to speak Spanish, and for being indigenous. That is happening to the compañeros, their rights are totally violated,” Patishtán points out.

Thus today, prison would seem more than ever, a place for those who are left to die. Some 90 percent of the Cerss 5 population is indigenous: 298 men and 24 women. The organizations estimate that there are more than 100 infections in the prison. In this context, Patishtán demands that the governor of Chiapas, Rutilio Escandón, attend to those in Solidarity with the Voice of El Amate in a hospital outside the prison and that later they be given amnesty.

For his part, Adrián Gómez Jiménez, a Tzotzil prisoner of The Voice of Indigenous in Resistance, [2] will stay on a hunger strike from May 21 to June 5 inside of Cerss 5: “The workers were entering daily. They brought the virus. Our demand is freedom. It endangers our lives: they give it to us and we die.”

This case is symptomatic of what happens throughout the world. The first riots given the imminent arrival of the coronavirus in prisons occurred in the city of Modena, Italy, where six prisoners died. Then, in the La Modelo prison, in Colombia, 23 prisoners were murdered. Faced with prison rebellions, several countries started to release prisoners, albeit selectively: in Iran and Turkey activists, journalists and Kurds were kept in prison. In Mexico, a law for amnesty on minor crimes advanced in April. However, for indigenous prisoners, whose serious crimes are fabricated with racial and class inequities, this law does not apply.

If the philosopher and Afro-American activist Angela Davis shreds in her book “Are prisons obsolete?” the inheritance that the prison industrial complex has from slavery –both in the methods of torture as in the exploitation of labor–, the historian Ilán Semo outlines in La Jornada (November 2019) that the Mexican prison system has the double function of collecting wealth, mainly for organized crime, and inhibiting protest from Mexico below so that it accepts its social place “as immovable.” Thus, we could think of prisons, especially those of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas, as guarantors of a class system inherited from the Porfirian finca (estate).

Davis, herself a prisoner in 1972 for the Jackson brothers case, emphasizes the normalization of the prison system “as if it were something inevitable in life.” Today it seems that this system is expanding to “all the people” (pandemos). You leave prison through sickness, as in the novel “Los días de la peste,” by the Bolivian Edmundo Paz Soldán, and the world is under a kind of prison by scales. Thus, it would seem that the images of prisoners kneeling that the Salvadoran president, Nayib Bukele, released are a warning to the population outside. We are facing a global system in which surveillance and punishment are applied to those who commit the crime of being infected.

However, home confinement in the United States is not the same as that of indigenous prisoners in Chiapas. With everything, from their sit-ins and encampments, the organized prisoners give a lesson on the exercise of freedom.

To resist, Patishtán taught the prisoners Spanish, told them how to read a document or write a statement. Also, collectively, prisoners became doctors and even psychologists: still today they are organized with autonomy and this is demonstrated by their ability to raise their voices and go on a hunger strike. Patishtán said when he came out of his captivity: “I always felt free.” In times of coronavirus, we could keep this phrase as a horizon, and help spread the voice of the Tzotzils who resist the coronavirus in prison.

*Feature writer

[1] Cerro Hueco is the name of the old prison in the Chiapas capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. It is no longer in operation. The new prison in that area is El Amate.

[2] Membership in the organizations Solidarity with the Voice of El Amate and the Voice of Indigenous in Resistance indicate a solidarity with or sympathy for the Zapatista movement.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee



One Comment on “Prison and the pandemic: freedom, according to Chiapas indigenous prisoners

  1. Pingback: Zapatista News & Analysis | Blog of Zapatista Support Group Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand

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