Peacebuilding en Las Américas – March 29, 2017

Coni Lustenberger Volunteers in Honduran Prison

Since PLA’s founding in 2002, volunteers have been the lifeblood of our programs in Central America and Colombia. Volunteers have included bilingual facilitators, psychologists, translators, and dedicated Friends providing administrative support and funding.

Although rehabilitation in prisons is required by Honduran law, prisons lack opportunities for positive activities. “Each person tries to live their life the best or worst that they can, but it is not a place for humans,” asserts AVP Facilitator Ondina Murillo. “There is violence everywhere: fights, confrontations, insults, and psychological mistreatment.”

Enter Cornelia “Coni” Lustenberger, an extended term volunteer at the El Porvenir Prison in La Ceiba, Honduras. Originally from Switzerland, she arrived in 1995 with a calling to social change. Her unwavering dedication has made El Porvenir the first Honduran prison with a human face.

For the past ten years, Coni has tirelessly created opportunities for rehabilitation through recycled-arts workshops, drawing and painting classes, music lessons, meditation, yoga, and primary school education. Coni installed a small library run by inmates. She gives presentations on self-esteem, sexuality, STD prevention, and human rights and also provides access to tattoo removal and legal services.

Since 2014, Coni, with the help of seasoned Honduran facilitators Ondina Murillo and Judith Aguilar and the support of PLA, quickly made AVP an indispensable part of rehabilitation inside El Porvenir. Within two years, 164 of 517 people living in the prison took one of 12 AVP workshops. Says Coni, “There are many who have confessed to me that they thought that they were born to be bad and now they discover that they can be more human, more caring.”

Since March 2015, three inside facilitators deliver workshops in the prison alongside external facilitators. One inside facilitator stated, “Before entering AVP, I was a cold person without feeling, with evil thoughts. I didn’t believe in God; I was uneducated and everything resulted in violence… Sincerely, since I received AVP and since I decided to use the tools that the workshops offer, I have felt an absolute change in my life. I am not saying I have changed 100 percent, but I feel that I have begun to be a new person. I have calmed down my hatred and the desire to do revenge that was in my soul.”

The AVP community within the prison is multi-racial and includes both former gang members and non-members, breaking the sharp separations within the prison based on ethnicity or race and former gang affiliation. The three internal facilitators are all former gang members from different gangs: one is Garifuna (with part-African ancestry) while the others are European/indigenous. They facilitate together and have become close friends. Two of them wrote an AVP song that connects their love for AVP with their passion for music.

Facilitators and workshop participants created their own soccer team within the prison, with AVP uniforms. AVP also provides inmates with tools for expressing empathy and hope. Participants help each other face their extremely violent living conditions. Once when one participant felt himself losing control after another inmate provoked him, he spotted an AVP friend looking on and remembered there was another way. He took a deep breath and de-escalated the situation. Afterwards, he hugged his AVP friend.

Coni’s dedication and passion for healing and empowerment sets an example that inmates constantly learn from and admire. Once during an activity, a rat scurried into the room. Chaos ensued as men tried to trap and kill it. The rat hid between Coni’s legs. Despite being afraid of rats, she chose to protect it. The rat climbed up her leg as she slowly walked it to safety. Everyone was shocked. This protective act emphasized the vital choices each one of us can make to affect the well-being of our own and others’ lives.

One onlooker, imprisoned for murder, learned so much from Coni’s example that he now states, “I won’t even kill a cockroach.” As Coni describes: “Nobody is born violent, they are made violent. Many aggressors have been victimized in their childhood or adolescence by their families or “the system”. Just as you learn to be violent, you learn to be loved.”

Current plans: An AVP workshop with Rondines (inmates infamous for their violence), more yoga and meditation courses, and building a space to give workshops.

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