We stepped off a plane in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and I instantly knew this visit was going to be unforgettable. Less than an hour later, we entered what many call one of the world’s most dangerous prisons. There are no authorities on the inside of this jail; weapons freely move from prisoner to prisoner, drugs pass between inmates out in the open, and men pay for their escape if they can afford it. Many of these inmates are incarcerated for extreme crimes involving death and violence.
Rewind to that morning: I’d woken up in Denver, in my safe, comfortable home, and I flew to Honduras in first class on United Airlines. So how did my life come to this?
Naturally, when someone refers you to a documentary about one of the world’s toughest prisons, you try to find a way to visit a similar prison in the same country, right? Even after writing this, it sounds kind of crazy. But I’ve always been a just-say-yes, do-it-and-see-what-happens kind of guy, so that’s what I did. I’ve been working in Honduras for nearly a decade now (with the Humanity and Hope United Foundation), so thankfully I was able to find a contact, who had a contact, who knew a contact who could get us in.
Upon arrival in Tegucigalpa, Mama Ty greeted us and showed us to a van. With the help of her husband Pete and son-in-law John, Mama Ty was our escort into the prison. At 5-foot-2 and about 100 pounds, Mama Ty did not convince me that she would be adequate security… but my perspective quickly changed.
We showed our IDs to the guards outside the gates, and they let us into the prison — an area that even they wouldn’t venture into. I learned that we were visiting a wing where one gang resided. (The gangs are separated to prevent violence.) “Termite,” an inmate, met us at the door and let us know that Saturdays are family visitation days, so his visit with us would be quick so that he could return to his lookout spot. On visiting days, other gangs are known to inflict extreme violence on the families of rival gang members. We heard stories of guns, assault weapons, and grenades, among other things.
Termite handed us off to Mexicano, who led us into a room of more than 200 gang members. Most of them looked younger than me. It was official; this was one of the craziest things I’d ever done. Thankfully, Mama Ty had 18 years of ministry experience with these men, and we learned that they defend her as if she was their own mother (hence “Mama” Ty). We spent over two hours with this group, listening to these men share their incredibly difficult pasts and even more challenging futures.
Tattoos covered the faces and bodies of many of these inmates who’d committed heinous crimes. Quite a few told us stories of taking the lives of others. Despite this, I could not get over how similar they are to the rest of us.
Most of these men had absent fathers. They had overwhelming needs that weren’t met as children, and emotional scars that needed to be healed. The inmates had families they cared about and children they worried about. Many of these men had no options for work other than to join a gang. And I began to understand.
After our time at the prison, we visited their families and met the next generation of children who are growing up in eerily similar circumstances to the ones that caused their fathers’ incarcerations. We played with the kids, told them stories, and passed out candy.
After visiting one of the most dangerous prisons in the world, I left with a renewed passion to help make sure that kids don’t have to grow up in circumstances that cause them to join gangs. I also left with a new perspective: People like these inmates aren’t always in prison because they are bad; they often feel that to survive they had no other choice but to make the terrible decisions that landed them there.
I know that if we work together, we can do better. If we listen to each other’s stories, we can empathize. And if you want to meet Mama Ty, send us an email!
By Ben Higgins
Have you experienced something that completely took you out of your comfort zone? Share it with us!