The ultimate paradox: the power of being powerless
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, September 27, 2016
A couple of months ago I returned home from Cochabamba, Bolivia, where I worked with Manos con Libertad, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of imprisoned and formerly imprisoned women through the International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) at the Center for Social Concerns. Although my time at Manos was spent mostly outside of prison, I did get a first hand view of what life in prison can be like.
It is important to note that my experience took place in only one facility, a prison for women in Cochabamba, whose name I will leave unmentioned for privacy purposes. I might portray Bolivia’s penitentiary system in a rather negative light. However, my aim is not to criticize Bolivia’s efforts, given that the same situations occur in many prisons around the world, including in United States, and in my home country, Panama.
During my time spent with the women, I had the opportunity to learn about Bolivia’s penitentiary system and the experience of living inside its prisons. I got to hear about and witness different issues such as incarceration without trial, overpopulation, lack of proper living conditions and a very negative social environment among the prisoners.
However of all the issues I learned about, a very important one stood out to me the most. Many of the women at the prison were convicted, and had been convicted before because of drug trafficking. As they told me, once their sentence is completed they will go back to trafficking drugs because that is the only way they know to get a living and provide for their families. The reality is that many convicts in Bolivia’s (and many other countries’) penitentiary system tend to get stuck in the cycle of prison. The prisoners, who are objects of the system, do not have the means to overcome the misery that they are forced to live in, because they are not taught an alternative way of life, and so the cycle continues. Instead of encouraging correction and improvement, incarceration time only leads to the continuation of the crimes that the prisons supposedly aim to eradicate. How can former prisoners reintegrate into society instead of returning behind the cells? In my opinion, this is one of the biggest issues in prison reform that need to be solved.
Along with the problem of the cycle comes another very important one, which came up in the conversations with the prisoners more often than any other issue: feeling and being powerless. Not only are the women powerless to get out of the cycle of imprisoned life, but they also feel powerless to provide for their family, help their children, or simply effect any change in their family’s and their own lives. In spite of the fact that being and feeling powerless brings many negative issues into the equation, and despite the fact that I do not support some of the current penitentiary systems all over the world that violate human rights and are not focused on the inmates’ well-being, I believe that there are positive aspects of being powerless. I call this “the ultimate paradox.”
Being powerless makes us rely on others. I remember feeling very powerless when I arrived to Cochabamba. I did not have any sense of direction, I did not know where to go to solve certain issues, and I could not avoid getting taken advantage of for noticeably being a foreigner. This, sometimes against my will, forced me to rely on others. This was especially the case when taking public transportation. When I would ask the driver to let me know when we reached Avenida Heroínas or Avenida Oquendo, because streets often were not labeled and I did not have sufficient knowledge of my surroundings yet. Relying on others gave me a better picture of what “real life” is like, and humbled me. And I believe there is great power in that.
Being powerless gives us a reason to connect with others, because all of us are powerless. Inevitably, we will not have complete control over our lives at all times. I know my site partner Kathleen and I bonded often over our similar experiences struggling with lack of control or lack of power. Through connecting with others, we get the opportunity, not only to learn about our neighbor, but also to really see and appreciate their value.
Being powerless also makes us equal. Powerlessness allowed me to connect with the prisoners, but more importantly, it let me connect with them at an equal level. We were not above or below each other, but we were all powerless and equal. Finding something in common with the prisoners made it much easier for me to understand them, and, still with some limitations, to try to be in their shoes.
Lastly, being powerless helps us become aware of the enormous power that we have within us. And this is exactly why at the end of the day I felt powerful: because I managed to overcome every obstacle even when I was the most powerless. It takes power to do that.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.