Posted by: calloftheandes | June 20, 2013

Meeting Believers Behind Bars Highlights Success of Ministry of Ex-Prisoner

Recently I learned a new Spanish word, borroso, which means “blurry.” As each man sat holding my specially-designed reading chart, some struggled to read John 3:16, a Bible verse that summarizes God’s love for sinners.

first person account by Ralph Kurtenbach

story by Ralph Kurtenbach

Then trying out the reading glasses I’d handed across the desk, a man would at times smile and say, “Yes, I see. I can read it.”

“Yes, I see” were the words that hit me hard because our medical team was in Quito’s main penitentiary to help the men with more than physical needs. We were pleased to meet many who had also embraced that divine love that John 3:16 refers to. They’re studying the Scriptures and growing in God’s grace.

From bits of conversation with these men, I gathered that they have no argument recognizing themselves as sinners. Many offered transparency, no hiding. So I tried to reciprocate when they’d begin with, “Doc, I’ve got this problem with my eyes.” I told them I’m not a doctor, but I had accompanied an HCJB Global medical team to the prison. Along with two nurses, a physician and a medical intern, I spent three days inside the walls. No nights, I’d quickly add.

Going to Prison … by Choice

photo credit: Agencia Pública de Noticias del Ecuador y Suramérica

photo credit: Agencia Pública de Noticias del Ecuador y Suramérica

We arrived about 9 a.m. and presented our documents to access the building. Once inside we surrendered our documents, got patted down and frisked and had our boxes of supplies rummaged through, which included smelling the bottled water we brought to drink. About 45 minutes and several steel gates later we were inside, an inked stamp on our arms to show that we were visitors.

We waited a bit longer once inside the classroom area. Members of the Narcotics Anonymous group were concluding their meeting, having linked arms as they stood in a circle. Then they recited together a statement affirming their need for one more powerful than themselves to get the monkey off their backs (kick the drug habit). The Carcel 2 (Prison No. 2) education director, Wilson Vallejo, led them in what he later told me was a prayer of serenity based on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

We quickly set up for our doctor, Steve Nelson, and a Hospital Vozandes-Quito intern who accompanied us. Helping out was another doctor, one who did not wear the magic ink mark on his arm—the ticket out of those steel doors later that day. Though trained in surgery, his clinical skills were excellent, according to Steve. He even found one inmate’s eardrum to have been ruptured.

Smiling and sharing some chocolates she’d brought, nurse Rita Whaley set to work applying a blood pressure cuff to those waiting on chairs across from me. She’s experienced at prison visits, having helped several Polish inmates inside and upon their release.

Patient with Rita Whaley

Patient with Rita Whaley

Rita’s tireless ministry to prisoners during her off-time has even come to the attention of the Polish Embassy in Quito since many of those assisted are Polish men sitting out their time (often caught as drug couriers, known as “mules”) in Ecuador. Awhile back she was awarded a recognition by Poland’s government, a sort of “ambassador” status on an ID card. This, presented outside the sprawling but cramped incarceration complex known as the Ex-Penal García Moreno (Ex-García Moreno Penitentiary), ushers Rita to the front of the line of waiting visitors.

As nurse Ian McFarland, who had arranged the clinic logistics, was manning his table laden with some more basic pharmaceuticals, I got a stark glimpse into a Carcel 2 reality. “Tell Dr. Steve in English that if he prescribes medicines to that man, he will just go and sell them,” said Angel Aguirre, a pastor who daily ministers to inmates. A delicate task for me, given that the man—not a deaf man—was directly across from Steve. So I walk over, and as casually as I can muster, say to Steve, “He’ll just sell the drugs if you prescribe anything.” Then I walk back to help others buy reading glasses for $3 a pair.

A Vision to Share Christ

Aguirre’s vision to reach inmates with the love of Christ is clear, stemming from his own conversion when he was behind bars a couple of decades ago. Surely there are aspects of Ecuador’s prison system that have changed since that time, when prison reform advocate Chuck Colson wrote of his visit to the García Moreno Penitentiary that is part of the same complex as Carcel 2.

Colson wrote of the “mounds of garbage,” the “putrid odors” and the “top step splattered with blood,” leaving readers of his “BreakPoint” commentary with an image of a Dickens-era degradation of humanity or the horrendous conditions depicted by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. Then Colson drew contrasts by touring his readers through a cell block operated by his ministry, Prison Fellowship.

While horrible scenes did not greet our HCJB Global team upon entering Ex-Penal García Moreno, we experienced the grayish environment (even amid brightly colored walls) and the gritty feel during our visit. It was not only in the prison but also in the surrounding neighborhood that we felt more change is needed. We passed through narrow, dimly lit corridors. We saw peeling paint (exposing several shades of mildew) and watched able-bodied men while away their time with gambling and games in the exercise yard. “It’s soul destroying” was how Ian summarized the scene.

Three-fourths of the men in Carcel 2 have drugs to blame for their incarceration, including some of those I met from Nigeria, Spain, Bulgaria, Colombia and Ecuador.

The prisons (five cover the complex, each autonomously administered, I was told) collectively have a personality that in a psychiatrist’s office would be diagnosed as neurotic. After two days in Carcel 2, we took our supplies to Carcel 3 where again the rules dictate that drugs—even basics such as ibuprofen—are prohibited. Moreover, during one of our morning friskings, we watched as main gate guards confiscated the fruits that, if carried inside, would be fermented into an alcoholic concoction, “hootch.”

Yet in conversations we learned that drugs are freely available for those who’ve come up with the money. How else would a heroin user be able to feed his habit? Drugs provide the pain deadening tranquilizer that helps dampen the violence, one man told us.

In contrast, Aguirre and Vallejo pursue an approach that emphasizes reform and hope, not emotional escape through a drug-induced experience. “Things are tranquil here [Carcel 2], and it’s because God is here,” Vallejo told me, adding that prisoners request assignment to Prison No. 2 rather than some of the others.

Hope for New Life

Aguirre, an ex-prisoner from Ecuador, manages a Bible study program that keeps 80 prisoners in the Word of God. With booklets from the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Crossroads Bible Institute, the men are on three different tracks. Some began just recently; others have stuck with the program for three years since Vallejo first conceived of a prisoner rehabilitation program centered on spiritual formation. Many times HCJB Global’s Bruce Rydbeck, another regular visitor to García Moreno, has studied the Word with these men.

Discussion between Angel Aguirre (left), two inmates, and Bruce Rydbeck (right).

Discussion between Angel Aguirre (left), two inmates, and Bruce Rydbeck (right).

“The studies help the men pass the time?” I asked Vallejo, a 42-year-old Colombian. “No, much more important than that,” he responded, illustrating the transformative impact on the men’s lives. “Without the Bible, the Narcotics Anonymous people do not recover.”

Self-described as a former gang member and urban guerrilla, Vallejo had sought fulfillment in alcohol, drugs and sex before landing in prison. He can name the day and hour inside the walls when, despite his hardened state, he felt a compelling urge to cry.

“I just knelt down and cried for an hour,” he described, adding that he learned later of how his friend thousands of miles away in Canada had prayed for him at that exact time. Others too had prayed with that friend.

“That was a start for me,” Vallejo continued. “That was something that changed my life—unexplainable but very beautiful.” His own experience with Christ fired in Vallejo a passion to see other prisoners enjoy liberty even if they remain behind the bars of penitentiaries and jails.

The ticket out - an inked wrist. Photo in background shows Ex Penal Garcia Moreno.

The ticket out – an inked wrist. Photo in background shows Ex Penal Garcia Moreno.

The shape of his program has changed, but Vallejo began three years ago with what he called “the worst”—assassins, killers and rapists—exactly the ones that he’d requested. Describing their conversions, Vallejo said, “But now they’re like me. They’re tenderhearted and easily brought to tears.”

During those three days in gritty central Quito, it was good work—satisfying work. Borroso no more seeing those words on the reading chart. God’s truths, infinite and vast, will not all become clear in an instant for on this earth we still see as through a glass darkly, as the Apostle Paul wrote. Even the value of these men behind bars may remain blurry to many, but I found it enlightening to spend those three days inside the walls of the Ex-Penal García Moreno. For that time has helped me to see these men’s worth in the light of eternity.


  1. […] a person or entity with present or past ties to Reach Beyond. The story was written by Reach Beyond writer Ralph Kurtenbach, who worked in the Ecuador quake zone in May. He is a regular attendee at the Mister Bagel Bible […]

  2. […] Hermann Schirmacher, a missionary serving in Reach Beyond’s community development department who coordinated the second team, is also heading the third group that leaves for the coast this morning (Friday, May 6). The team includes veteran missionary physician Dr. Steve Nelson, Dr. Mauricio Colonel of Reach Beyond’s Carapungo Clinic in Quito and writer Ralph Kurtenbach. […]

  3. […] by Jody Arnold with Ralph Kurtenbach […]

  4. […] (April 13, 2015 – interview by Ralph Kurtenbach) […]

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