Friday, February 25, 2011

Meeting Americans

As I think I have mentioned on here before, after Christmas, I switched from visas to American Citizens Services.  Unlike many of my friends at large posts, I get to experience almost all components of consular work. And from now until at least the summer, I am in charge of American Citizens Services (ACS).

ACS is, as we say, a cradle to grave service.  We literally do birth reports and death certificates.  We also do passports, help victims of crimes, visit prisoners, help Americans get home, and find lost Americans (or more accurately, Americans who haven't checked in with family).  This past week has been quite busy with several arrests, a quarterly prison visit, a possible child abuse case, and a town hall meeting.  And this was a four day week!

On Wednesday, I went to Hattieville to visit the prisoners.  While each police district has its own small jail to hold prisoners temporarily, all long-term prisoners go to Hattieville.  Run by the non-profit Kolbe foundation, the prison looks like something out of O Brother, Where Art Thou? The land around the prison is flat and relatively treeless.  The whole complex has around 1500 inmates.  There is a chain link fence on the outside of the whole complex and several fences inside separating the various housing units.  In all honesty, escape would not be that difficult.

The atmosphere appears very relaxed compared to a U.S. prison.  The prisoners don't have uniforms - they wear whatever they can get.  Unlike some other Central American prisoners, they are fed by the prison.  There are a couple of woodworking shops and a jewelry shop and most of the inmates do some work.  The guards have uniforms, but aren't armed.

There are currently fewer than five American prisoners in the prison.  I can't go into any details about them or why they are there, but I was able to meet with all of them personally.  We go to the prison at least once a quarter.  We always bring some toiletries (toothpaste, soap, deoderant, etc).  We also try to collect clothes, books, magazines, etc for the prisoners.  In general, they were pleasant to me and happy to have someone to talk to about their case or what they will do when they get out of prison.

On Thursday, we had our first town hall meeting of the year.  We try to hold meetings around Belize to give people the opportunity to meet the Ambassador and our staff, to ask some questions, and to learn what we do.  Our meeting this week was in Belize City.  Given that it is, by far, the largest city in the country, we expected a good turnout.  Instead, we had fewer than a dozen people come.  Those who did come seemed to be engaged.  Even though our presentations were done by 1230, most of the people were still there by 130-200 mingling with each other as well as the staff.

This week was the first time since I started on ACS that I really got out of the office and got to meet Americans without bullet-proof glass between us.  I really enjoyed this side of consular work for the first time.  I had been dreading doing this for 6 more months, but I actually enjoyed it this week.

Now, let's just hope the duty phone doesn't ring all weekend.

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