Don’t miss the beginning of the trip…read about the trip in order.
Belize City Day Trip:
When we decided to go to Belize, we were presented with a rare opportunity. My step-father is close friends with a Catholic priest who has been living and working in Belize for years.
Retired from his teaching position, Father Jack Stochl is now a chaplain at Belize’s only prison. The prison was run terribly for years by the government. In 2002, the government turned the prison over to the newly formed Christian non-profit, The Kolbe Foundation. At the time, there were 900 prisoners in a prison with 300 beds, no sewage facilities and no drinkable water.
The Kolbe Foundation has turned the prison around, and Father Stochl offered to take us on a private tour.
How could we refuse?
I know it’s not a normal vacation activity, but this was an opportunity to see something that very few people ever get a chance to see.
Belize City Tour:
While we felt unbelievably safe on Ambergris Caye, Belize City is notoriously dangerous. I’m sure there are parts of town that are fine, but we were a bit nervous about even taking a taxi in Belize City.
Luckily, Father Stohl arranged for a friend of his to play driver for the day since he doesn’t drive anymore.
We arrived at the water taxi terminal early in the morning, and Jack was waiting for us. He took us on a short tour of the city, including see the school where he had worked for years and still has an apartment on the property.
Belize Central Prison Tour:
After finishing our city tour, we headed to the prison. I don’t know what I expected, but it definitely wasn’t a thatched roof entrance.
I’m sure I’ll never again have an experience like this one.
We walked through the front door, and Father Stochl said hello to the prison guard manning the entrance. He told her that he was bringing visitors through for a tour, and she handed us all badges to wear.
No searches, no locked doors. We simply walked through an open doorway and down an outdoor pathway, and we were inside the prison.
He took us through a number of outdoor yards where prisoners roamed freely. Every one of them greeted Father Stochl respectfully as we passed, and several approached him to say hello. You could see how much his attention meant to them.
We took a tour of the kitchen in action…imagine cooking for over a thousand people in an open air kitchen in the tropics with no air conditioning.
We got a tour of the fields where prisoners grow produce for the prison.
We saw the chapel and the area where the mentally unstable or vulnerable prisoners were housed with a small yard protecting them from the rest of the prisoners.
But the most interesting part of the tour was definitely the drug treatment program. All of the prisoners in the program are volunteers. It’s a really tough program, and they have to be on their best behavior or they get kicked out. All of the prisoners in the program are moved to a building where they live together, and they spend all day in classes.
Expecting to stand quietly at the back of the room for a couple of minutes, my Mom and I were both a more than a little uncomfortable when we were led to the chairs at the front of the room facing the prisoners. The room was filled with about 100 prisoners, all sitting in rows like they were in a college classroom, and all of them were staring at us.
One of the graduates from the last session approached the podium and gave a stirring testimonial. He shared his journey into drug addiction and crime, and how the program has helped him approach life in a new way.
He spoke powerfully. It reminded me of the revival preachers that I’ve seen on TV shows. Some of the prisoners were clearly moved by his words. Some continued staring at us the entire time. I tried not to squirm.
When he was finished, the prisoners were told to stand and they sang a couple of songs for us. This wasn’t a timid group. They sand loudly and with heart.
At this point, I was getting used to the men in the front row staring at me and being a little uncomfortable. And then we were asked if we would like to say anything.
Bam! Sheer discomfort returned.
It felt ungracious to not say anything, but boy did I just want out of that room.
I am totally at ease teaching a class to real estate agents about using technology to market their business. But this was completely different.
After being invited to share this very personal experience…in a foreign country, in a prison, in a room filled with just men…probably dangerous men…with no guards, it was quite nervewracking.
And I even worked in a drug treatment facility years ago so it’s not like I’ve never been around addicts before.
We quickly thanked the prisoners for allowing us to visit and were more than ready when Father Stochl led us out of the room.
I wish I had more photographs to share, but understandably no cameras were allowed inside the prison.
- When an unusual opportunity presents itself, take it. While we may have been uncomfortable during parts of the visit, it was an experience neither of us would have passed up.
- Don’t bother with the Baboon Sanctuary. When we left the prison, we tried to go see wild monkeys in the Baboon Sanctuary located nearby that I read about in a guide book. Total waste of time. It’s really just a protected area which nothing really to see.
Next Up – Getting Around Belize