Fighting for imprisoned women around the world

A Maryknoll lay missioner becomes a lawyer
to address the global issues of female incarceration

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[googlefont font=“Cormorant Infant” fontsize=”20″]By Heidi Cerneka[/googlefont]

I have worked for over 20 years with women in prison, mostly in Brazil. I have visited women’s prisons in Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, Thailand, Cameroon, the United States, and now Kenya, where I am serving with the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. Everywhere I’ve gone, the causes and devastating consequences of locking up women are universal. They do not change from country to country.

When I started visiting women in prison in São Paulo, Brazil, as a Maryknoll lay missioner in 1997, concern about incarcerated women was limited to addressing pregnancy and care for the women’s children. Slowly, over the years I spent in Brazil, we reshaped the understanding of women and incarceration, looking at mental health issues and talking about how the bigger issues for women were poverty and violence. If we could have a more equitable society, which I believe is God’s Kingdom here on earth, we would drastically reduce the prison population and crime.

Our advocacy has faces and names, like Maria Aparecida, who was arrested for shoplifting two bottles of shampoo. She had two sons to feed and she suffered mental health problems. She spent 19 months in prison for $12 worth of shampoo, and she lost an eye when she was attacked by a guard for her challenging behavior. She didn’t need prison; she needed help.

Lay Missioner Heidi Cerneka (left), who works to help imprisoned women, visits with a female inmate in a Brazilian jail cell.

Lay Missioner Heidi Cerneka (left) with a woman inmate in a Brazilian prison cell.

In another case, a judge refused pretrial release for Iolanda, a 78-year-old grandmother with terminal cancer who was accused of drug trafficking, although “innocent until proven guilty” is also the law in Brazil. Using media, legal strategy and public indignation, we were able eventually to get Iolanda released while she awaited her appeal. She died four months later at home.

Globally, incarcerated women are poor. Poor people do not have a corner on crime, but they are more likely to be arrested. They are also less likely to have lawyers who can devote the time and resources needed for a strong defense. Over 80 percent of women in prison are mothers, and are often single-parent heads of households. Multiple studies have shown that more than 90 percent of incarcerated women have been victims of violence at some point in their lives. Prison just piles trauma upon trauma. On average, imprisoned women have less schooling than other women their age. They need assistance and opportunities far more than they need “correction.”

When a woman is arrested, the whole family is destabilized. An incarcerated man usually knows that his children are with their mother while he is in prison. When a woman is arrested, her children are scattered among family or friends, if not put in state custody. Rarely are they with the father. When a man gets out of prison, he goes home. When a woman gets out of prison, her home is usually gone.

All of this is true wherever I have gone. Here in my new mission in Kenya, where I began serving in September 2017, I want to put a deeper African and global face to these realities. Incarceration of women is not the problem. It is a symptom of global systemic problems, especially economic injustice, which need to be identified and addressed.

After almost 18 years in Brazil, I left overseas mission in August 2014 and enrolled in law school at Loyola University Chicago. I felt that I could be a better advocate if I had the legal tools to go with my accumulated experience and knowledge. With loans, grants and scholarships, I was able to study full-time for three years, although I was twice the age of most of my classmates.

Imprisoned women inmates who are trained as paralegals to assist themselves and other prisoners with their criminal cases discuss strategy at a legal clinic in the Lang’ata Women’s Prison in Nairobi, Kenya.

Inmates who are trained as paralegals to assist themselves and other prisoners with their criminal cases discuss strategy at a legal clinic in the Lang’ata Women’s Prison in Nairobi, Kenya. (S. Randa/Kenya)

After graduation, I spent the summer studying up to 15 hours a day for the Illinois State Bar exam, then took it, packed up my apartment the next day, and a month later headed to Kenya, once more a Maryknoll lay missioner.

Kenya attracted me because of the strong Maryknoll presence here and a unique paralegal training program in the prisons. Kenya does not have public defenders and most people accused of a crime cannot afford a lawyer. So, they must “self-defend.” Training prisoners to speak up in court and to be their own advocates not only gives them a slightly better chance at trial, but also builds courage and self-confidence that last far beyond their court cases. This is what the paralegal training program is all about.

After the paralegal training program started in 2007, it quickly began piling up success stories. While on death row, Dismas Omondi helped more than 230 fellow prisoners obtain their freedom before he finally won his own appeal. Certainly, their success is due to skill and commitment, although it is also likely due to unjust convictions in the first place, because most prisoners have no legal defense.

Now I assist the paralegals at a legal clinic in the Lang’ata Women’s Prison in Nairobi with the hope of learning enough to re-create the paralegal program in other places. In Kenya, prisoners and guards serve as paralegals, assisting other prisoners with preparations for trial, filing appeals and other legal matters. I have not seen this in any of the many prisons I have visited in various countries. The training is an intensive seven full days of learning and discussing the Kenyan Penal Code, how to write documents, and how a criminal case proceeds. Occasional follow-up workshops help to fine-tune the skills.

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Heidi Cerneka (left), whose work in Kenya involves helping imprisoned women, also makes time to work with refugees, such as the woman in the blue t-shirt. Cerneka was accompanied by Joseph Waweru, who worked for Jesuit Refugee Service.

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Heidi Cerneka (left), whose work in Kenya involves helping imprisoned women, also makes time to work with refugees, such as the woman in the blue t-shirt. Cerneka was accompanied by Joseph Waweru, who worked for Jesuit Refugee Service.

Another lawyer and I, working through Christian Legal Education Aid and Research, strategize with paralegals and prisoners about their cases, discussing plea bargaining, defense strategies, mitigation, and grounds for appeal or sentence revision. It’s dynamic and empowering, but limited, especially in a justice system in which information is hard to access because it is mostly still on paper and not digitized.

Being able to walk into a prison and share people’s lives, listen to their stories, counsel them and encourage them is a blessing. This is holy ground, and it is the place where I most feel the presence of God. When you strip a person of everything—family, home, job, freedom and more—often all she has left is her faith in God and she holds tenaciously to that.

I often hear pastoral ministers say that they visit prisons because it is their call to bring Jesus to the prisons. I believe that Jesus is there already. Our job is to meet him in the people whom we visit.

Featured Image: Five young women behind bars at a prison in Ilhéus, Bahia, Brazil, depend on candles for light because their cell has no electricity.
(Courtesy of H. Cerneka/Brazil)

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About the author

Heidi Cerneka

Heidi Cerneka, from St. Louis, Mo., is an attorney, admitted to the bar in Illinois, and is now serves as a Maryknoll lay missioner.