(Story from Matters India) For more than 17 years, a Catholic nun named Neyda Rojas has been serving God in a place that many describe as hell on earth – a Venezuelan prison.
For decades, penitentiaries here have been criticised by human rights organisations for allowing serious human rights violations to take place behind their walls.
Although the government has introduced reforms to improve living conditions, some Venezuelan prisons are still among the most violent and overcrowded in Latin America.
None of that has stopped this missionary, who belongs to the Mercedarian Order, help teach inmates some of the basics of life, like literacy.
“I’m very happy when they learn to read and write. I can see their excitement.
“It also means they can understand what official documents say about them and their trials”, the 52-year-old nun said.
‘Face of God’
“I have always seen the face of God in their faces”, she said on our way to Venezuela’s General Penitentiary (PGV) in Guarico state, a three-hour drive away from the capital Caracas.
We accompanied Sister Neyda to one of her workshops after the BBC was granted rare access to the prison.
Although the exterior of the prison is guarded by the Venezuela’s National Guard and it has a prison director and staff from the Ministry of Penitentiary Affairs, effectively it’s the inmates who are in charge on the inside.
The prisoners have weapons, a clear leadership structure and a strict set of rules.
Those who do not follow these rules often pay with their lives, human rights groups and former inmates say.
The PGV was built to hold 750 prisoners but at the time of our visit there were around 3,000 inmates.
With her charisma and perseverance, Sister Neyda has won the inmates’ trust.
It is a very dangerous and unpredictable place where violence is rife, but she walks around unafraid, as if she was untouchable.
“I am sure they will never shoot me. God is with me. They will never do anything against me. In fact, they protect me”, she says.
Although she acknowledges that many of the inmates have committed serious crimes, she cannot stop seeing them as “God’s children”.
“They’ve lost their freedom, but not their dignity. As a Mercedarian missionary who works in a jail, I have to serve them every day.”
When I asked her how she felt around the inmates, she touched my arm and told me with a kind smile that they were close to her heart.
“Many of them have been abandoned. But they have us. I am the voice of men who have no voice.”
Two armed young inmates were guarding the entrance the day I entered the prison with Sister Neyda.
“Good morning, my son, and God bless you,” she said, looking them in the eyes and shaking their hands.
They replied “Amen, Sister” and waved her in, no questions asked.
She is known as La Gota Blanca (The White Drop) because of the colour of her nun’s habit.
As she walks through the jail, you can hear prisoners shouting: “Put your shirts on!”
Like lightning, every bare-backed prisoner obeys, out of respect for the visiting nun who, for years, has been part of the jail’s teaching staff.
“Come and spend a nice afternoon with me. I’ll expect you in the classroom,” she says gently but firmly to the inmates.
One prison leader, who is serving a 17-year sentence, greets her fondly.
“I used to have a tiny heart,” the man told me.
“But because of Sister Neyda, it’s now huge. She teaches us humanity and spirituality” he said.
Minutes later, the noise of repeated gunfire sent a chilling reminder that we were inside a very dangerous place.
Sister Neyda quickly came over to reassure me and the inmate who was with us told us: “Don’t worry, they’re just testing their weapons. It’s okay. “
Thanks to her appeals and intercedence, many inmates with serious illnesses have received medicines and had their sentences commuted.
Sister Neyda recalls one diabetic man who had had both legs amputated and did not have a wheelchair.
“It was so beautiful when I was able to hand him to his family,” she says.
She says the prison has given her the chance to feel maternal.
One of her fondest memories is the time when one of the female inmates went into labour and Sister Neyda delivered the baby.
Another time a woman handed her her baby in a shoebox. The baby girl had inherited syphilis.
She also had intestinal worms and Sister Neyda had to beg doctors to help her save the baby,
She visited her in hospital every three hours and asked new mothers if they could breastfeed the little girl.
The girl is now 18 years old. She says that she has three mothers – her biological one, who died in prison, her adoptive mother and Sister Neyda.
But her memories of tender moments and the morning workshop she is teaching are ended abruptly when the prisoners received the order from their leaders to return to their cells.
They rush back looking worried.
Sister Neyda meanwhile calmly packs up her things and leaves the classroom saying “God willing, I will come back later”.
She did return, and no doubt will do so again.
Despite all the crime and violence inside this prison, Sister Neyda has also found respect and hope in what so many call “hell on earth”.