Monday, May 26, 2014

What to Wear When Visiting a Mexican Federal Prison

I do not work in the American Citizen Services (ACS) section, although I'd love to, but a while back I put my name on a list of volunteers who would be willing to do prison visits with the other ACS staff when the need arose.  One of the most critical functions of the Foreign Service is to serve American citizens abroad, and ensuring that they are not being mistreated while incarcerated falls under that scope.  Therefore I was happy to receive the message that my name had come to the top of the list for an upcoming prison visit. 

Sounds crazy, being excited about going to a Mexican prison in Ciudad Juarez, particularly one known to house cartel members and assassins, right?  ACS needed a few of us to visit because just a short time prior, this particular high-security prison had a handful of prisoners successfully escape (read more here) and we needed to assess whether or not conditions had changed since the escape for the American citizens currently housed there. I wanted to go to gain experience in this important ACS function as my only prior experience was during training at FSI with classmates when we worked through scripted scenarios of prisoner and ACS officer in ConGen's mock jail cell, complete with bars, cot, Halloween spiderwebs and plastic rat.  I also knew that I'd be going with three experienced ACS coworkers, including a local staff member who could do these visits in his sleep and who could provide answers to the prisoners' common procedural questions about their court cases. Therefore - I felt secure that I'd be in good hands.

Those going on the visit met in the ACS section of the Consulate first and were briefed on what our visit would entail and what types of questions we should ask the men, what notes we should take, questions we could anticipate etc...  It was at this point that my female coworker took me aside and asked if I was wearing an underwire bra.  I've gotta' say, I wasn't quite anticipating THAT question, and the answer unfortunately was, "Why yes I am; it's all I have. Will that be a problem?"  

"Well, yes.  See as this is a high-security federal prison, we're going to be searched and scanned completely, including with metal detector wands, which will hit on the underwire. You won't be allowed in wearing it."  

Hmmmm....  my mind racing for another option.  

"I have a swimsuit at home that, err, maybe I could wear underneath my top?" was the best I could come up with.  No, that wasn't going to work as we needed to hit the road directly. Therefore, popping over to the mall across the street to pick up the sports bra I'd been meaning to buy for quite some time was also out of the question.  My friend glanced at the top I was wearing and took in, shall we say, the totality of the situation and said, "Let's just go into the restroom and see, you know, how bad it would be to, you know, go without."  

To think that just the night before I'd carefully picked out my goin' to prison outfit: something professional, but not too formal, and definitely not revealing, tight or too feminine given the expected audience.  All that planning was stuffed - unused - along with the forbidden underwire bra, into my purse and away we went to prison.

We took a Consulate van to the southern edge of the city, well out of any neighborhood I'd been to previously, to an impressively-secure looking prison.  (Frankly, I haven't really seen other countries' prisons, except for a women's prison in Bogota near a beautiful Colombian military base where I'd take Saturday riding lessons.  I'd get out of my car in my breeches and boots and walk alongside a long line of family members waiting for the weekly visit of their mothers/daughters/sisters/wives.)  As anticipated, we were scanned and wanded from head to toe, and I realized how it would have been far more embarrassing had the forbidden underwire been discovered on site, in front of all the guards and supervisors who were escorting us in.  

The three of us sat behind a long table in a large empty room and received the prisoners three at a time.  They were all unfailingly polite and the conversations were easier than I'd expected.  I kept very strong eye contact with each guy in an effort to keep their gazes from dropping. Thankfully, I hadn't worn a white blouse that day, but instead one of those blouse-with-vest attached professional-looking "onsies" (this one here, actually), and so I'd like to believe that no one but me noticed the difference.  But running through my mind all the while was the Seinfeld episode where Kramer decides to "go commando" leaving "nothing between him and us but a thin layer of gaberdine!"

Moral of the story: When planning your next visit to a Mexican federal prison - check the dress code BEFORE!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Jefa de Grupo

Back when I was working in the NIV (non-immigrant visa, or tourist visa) section, a common part of the interview was to ask people about their jobs. In Juarez, a major source of employment is the assembly factory industry, known locally as maquiladoras.  Massive operations they are; we took a tour of one of the larger ones in the city and I was awed by the organization, division and sub-division of labor on such a large scale.  One of the jobs many people have is that of Group Leader, or in Spanish known as Jefe de grupo. As the title suggests, this person generally leads a small working group and acts as the link between that little pod of workers and others.  

This month I am Jefe de grupo, or more correctly the feminine version - Jefa de grupo, of our IV (immigrant visa) section.  It's a rotation that any officer with six months on the line can volunteer for and it means stepping away from the interview window for the month and picking up the fire extinguisher.  USCG Ciudad Juarez processes 20% of the world's immigrant visas (not Mexico's - the world's!) and therefore we're a pretty busy place. Therefore the new position felt overwhelming at first, facing the unending stream of people needing assistance all day (and I mean "unending" it the literal, non-exagerrated sense).  Whether it's responding to requests to reinstate visa petitions that have had no activity for a year, correcting printing errors on visas, assigning tasks to the line officers, trouble-shooting system errors with our IT departments, communicating to the line officers about the daily workload, working with our managers about staffing shortages or making decisions on cases for officers who have moved on - the work flows in from all directions and has to be continually re-prioritized, or triaged.  

Fortunately, I now find the stream of requests invigorating as they require either simple actions I don't have to think too much about, or real puzzles where I need to consult any number of people to solve. Through this problem-solving, I'm gaining a better understanding of the whole process of immigrant visas: from first petition in the U.S. to the final printing and delivery of the finished product here in Mexico.  While I miss hearing the day-to-day stories from our applicants via the interview window, the management challenges are stretching other mental muscles.  It's also putting me in direct contact with all sections of our own maquiladora that is the Consulate floor, and the other jefes de grupo to help solve problems, plus it's nice now to have more names behind the familiar faces.

The closest approximation from my prior life is restaurant work, especially working as a hostess.  The guests continually came through the door hungry and hopeful, everyone wanted a window table, all the waiters were "too busy to take another table now," the cooks were shouting to get the food out faster, the bar tenders needed more ice, clean glasses or change for a hundred dollar bill and we'd inevitably run out of the prime rib. Honestly, the survival skills learned in that setting are keeping me alive now.  

Lesson learned once again: the actual work of diplomacy, in all its facets, can't easily be replicated, but all the tools needed can be picked up in any number of places. 

Until next time, back to the factory!