Friends—Women's Prison Project
Just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico is a woman’s prison (Reclusorio Feminil) where close to 650 women reside. The center for prevention and re-adaptation (CPRF) is located within a compound of prisons totaling four different prisons; three for men, and this fourth one for women. The women’s prison was built to hold approximately 250 people, so it is highly overcrowded. The prison has women who are sentenced for all types of crimes from violent; to drug related; to white collar crimes such as fraud and money laundering. Women with mental health problems are here together with all kinds of other detainees as well as sentenced with unsentenced and guilty with innocent. (Photo above courtesy of the Lake Chapala Review, Ajijic.)
Because of the extremely long Mexican legal process, and bias toward condemnatory sentences, a lot of time passes before any final outcome is ever obtained in any case. It is a terrible burden on the individual which affects the health (mental, physical, and emotional) of the prisoner.
Rebecca Roth knows first hand about the fear, depression, anger, helplessness, hopelessness, and feeling of impotence being deprived of her freedom. She realized after the first year or so, that if she didn’t find a healthy way to funnel out all of the negative emotions (fear, depression, anger, helplessness, hopelessness), it would destroy her. She was a foreigner with little command of the Spanish language, a most stressful problem when she was trying to defend herself in a Spanish-speaking country. Constant feelings of isolation, futility and no way out scenarios filled her days in the early days.
Then Rebecca began to take notice of the world around her. There are children in this prison born to mothers who were pregnant when arrested and the babies are born and allowed to live with their mothers during the first 3 years of their lives. When she lived in Dormitory C-3, there was a baby born, “Lupita," a darling little girl who had no toys whatsoever. An idea formed in Rebecca's head to make Lupita a doll. The doll was to have orange hair and violet eyes with red lips and freckles. She made this doll which turned out to be the prototype of the "Original Friends" dolls now being made at the Reclusorio Feminil at Puente Grande.
Lupita loved her doll from the first moment she laid eyes on her. She named it “Mia”, which means mine in Spanish. This was the birth of the idea. Then, a year or so later, Rebecca was talking with her English student, Esmeralda. She wanted to quit working in the prison sewing workshop because they made them work from morning to night and they only made 3 pesos for every blouse or item that they made. They talked about the dolls and decided to make them.
Esmeralda came up with the name “Original Friends” and thus was born this special collaboration. They began production in July, 2008 and sold their first doll to the director of the prison on September 16, 2008. They have pledged never to repeat any of the designs so every doll is truly one-of-a-kind.
The materials used include: fabric, ribbons, lace, buttons, paints, broken jewelry, odds and ends, seed pearls, and any other materials their imagination says can be used on a doll. All dolls have underwear, an outfit, jewelry, and some "special" touch that makes them unforgettable. People comment and marvel at the level of their intricate details.
Now there is a team of ladies working on the dolls. All funds received from the sale of the dolls goes toward their personal needs, improving their skills and their self-esteem.
Meet some of the Ladies:
Esmeralda is a scuba diver and belonged to a diving club in Mexico City at the time she was arrested. She believes making the dolls is divinely inspired and something extraordinary. Today, she says that even though she has spent the last six years in jail and she still has yet to be sentenced, she is happy to be working on this great creative and artistic project together with her great friend, Rebecca.
Esmeralda has great hopes for this project that has been dedicated to God who has given us a future and blessings for everyone who has been involved in this.
Margarita Nunez Espinoza
She had a lot of freedom because her parents both worked fulltime. That gave her and her brothers the ability to choose their own paths and clearly she didn’t always make the right decisions. Even in pre-school, she was difficult to manage.
Some time later, she discovered the arts and began to channel these negative qualities into theatre, dance, singing and drawing. She attended FITA (Formation and Artistic Diffusion). Quickly, Edith became the most rebellious student, but for some reason they chose to allow her to become the children’s theatre teacher. Because of this, she realized that theatre and dance could be her spiritual path to the arts - something she could connect with.
Although she has never been married or had children, she took on the responsibility of raising her sister’s son when her sister’s destructive lifestyle became a threat to her nephew. Only since she’s been incarcerated have they been apart.
Becoming involved in the prison doll project has allowed her to manifest creativity in a very concrete way - a way her artistic endeavors never allowed. The dolls have given her a new creative focus that combine her strengths in theatre (costume design), indigenous art from various counties, including the Huichol of Mexico, hair and accessories - the sky is the limit for Edith's creativity.
Sandra likes to cut, color, and style hair and apply makeup. Although she completed junior high, she never completed high school because she began having children. She has two adorable children. Her 10-year old son is sensitive and sweet and due to his disposition, he suffers from her incarceration more than her 7-year old daughter. Sandra is fortunate to have a devoted husband who cares for the children and brings them often to visit her at Puente Grande.
There are several other contributors to the prison project at Puente Grande; Rosa Elias Munoz, who was a nurse and unknowingly immunized two children with unsafe vaccine. Mirriam Gaona is another recent helper who paints beautiful faces. We have Silvia and Isabel who sew the hair on the dolls and Carolina and Esmeralda *2* who turn the dolls and stuff them with filling.
All of the contributors are given a sense of purpose and improved self-esteem that comes from the philosophy of trying harder to make each step of the process the highest quality possible. With the money they earn from this project, the women are able to buy things in the prison store such as purified water, kotex, toilet paper, Clorox, clothing, handsoaps, etc. - or even an occasional treat at one of the three snack bars at Puente Grande.
Rebecca now works with Emmie and Marta; two prisoners who reside at the Reclusorio Feminil near Puerto Vallarta. These women have produced a dozen or so doll bodies (in one week!) based on a newly designed pattern by Rebecca.
The dolls can be found at the following galleries, boutiques and stores:
Here is just a sampling of the dolls from Original Friends: