by Douglas Keillor
Oscar’s life would never be the same. I was near then end of weeks of interviews. My research fellowship in Mexico City’s juvenile prisons included speaking with about 50 teenagers and many parents. It had started to become routine. But then the guards brought out a small, short, thin black haired little boy from Dormitory One, the dormitory that houses the most recent arrival.
Oscar was a small boy. He told me he was fourteen but with his slender frame he looked closer to ten. Oscar wouldn’t look up at me. He just stared down at his feet, in his black flip-flops that all the boys wear at the prison, while I asked him my questions. It wasn’t until I asked Oscar, as I had every teen, whether he came from an indigenous community that he looked up at me with a look of recognition in his eyes, as if to say “how did you know?”
Oscar came from a small indigenous village in the mountains of Oaxaca Mexico, about 6 hours outside of Mexico City. He was arrested for stealing bus fares in Mexico City just a few days before I met him. And Oscar’s parents didn’t even know that he had been arrested. As we finished the interview Oscar looked up at me again and asked me “What is going to happen to me?” I told him “I don’t know.”
But if I had had the heart to tell him the truth, I would have said that if his parents came to Mexico City and fought for him every day and forced his defense attorney to do his job that he would be in prison for the next month before the court would grant him bail, or pretrial release. But that since his parents didn’t even know that he had been arrested, and probably could not afford the $300 for bail in any case, that Oscar would be in prison for 6 months, until his trial. And that once his trial came and he was convicted, he would be sentenced. If his parents showed up he could get probation, but since that was likely not going to happen because they didn’t even know where he was, he would spend another six months to a year in prison.
Because Oscar would stay in prison for weeks and months, he would be twice as likely to suffer from depression,twice as likely to commit suicide, twice as likely to drop out of school and twice as likely to use drugs when finally released. I could have told Oscar that three quarters of all of the juveniles in Mexico’s prisons are beaten or abused by the guards, or the police or the prosecutors. He probably already knew that a small boy like him would be beaten and abused by the other kids in the prison. I have seen the bruises and the scars I on the boys and girls in the prisons.
I thanked Oscar for his time, wished him luck. As I walked back to the iron gate, I sent up a prayer for him. I never saw Oscar again. Less than a year after meeting Oscar, I founded the Children In Prison Project and started working with the court to place kids like Oscar in private shelters. I imagine Oscar’s parents finally retrieving him from that Mexico City prison. But their boy will never be the same again. Prison changes children.