Paula Manzaba stands in front of some of her foundation's handmade products, which include shampoo, skin creams, and cleaning products. Participants make a living by making the products by hand and then selling them
Paula Manzaba stands in front of some of her foundation's handmade products, which include shampoo, skin creams, and cleaning products. Participants make a living by making the products by hand and then selling them | Photo by Pamela Castillo Díaz

Formerly incarcerated Ecuadorian woman helps others reintegrate into society

I’m proud to help these people, who often have no other options. We all deserve to make a living and support our families, regardless of our pasts.

Paula Manzaba
Interview Subject
Paula Manzaba, 48, is a mother of four and president and founder of Fundación Familias Unidas por el Cambio (Families United for Change Foundation).
Background Information
The Families United for Change Foundation “is an organization of men and women who fight for housing, decent jobs and for the rights of low-income families.”

Members seek to fight for the rights of women and men who have been deprived of their liberty to improve their living conditions.

QUITO, Ecuador—I will never forget Tuesday, April 8, 2004.

I was a nursing assistant and had just gotten off the night shift when I came home to find my children alone. When I asked the eldest, who was 10 years old, where his father was, he told me that he had not come home to sleep.

I made breakfast and lay down for a while because I was exhausted. My husband ran in like crazy, picked something up, and sped out of the house again. Not even 10 minutes passed before the police arrived and banged on the door so hard it seemed like it would break down.

They searched the house and found a small bag with something that looked like flour. That was the beginning of the end of my life as I knew it then.

Life behind bars

I told the police the drugs were not mine and that I didn’t know my husband had it. They did drug tests on me, and since I had no drugs in my blood, they charged me with possession. The judge sentenced me to eight years in prison.

I served just over three years for good behavior. My children were raised by charitable foundations or entrusted with family and friends.

During that time, I lost weight and fell into a deep depression. Several times, I thought about taking my own life. I didn’t sleep at all and hardly ate. I was completely alone—even my family turned their backs on me.

In prison, there are no friends. Behind the bars, once it’s lights out, it becomes everyone for themselves. I sometimes had to sleep on the floor or in the upper part of a bunk without a mattress.

However, time passed. I started working, learning how to do trades, such as packing gauze and making cotton swabs. I also learned to make crafts that I later sold and washed the clothes of the foreign prisoners. What money I earned I sent to my children and used myself occasionally on things like skin creams, makeup and clothes.

Three years later, free at last

On Aug. 8, 2008, I set foot out of jail for the first time in three years.

My children were scattered. Alan, who was only 2 months old when I was imprisoned, was now a toddler living with my sister. A foundation gave them a monthly stipend to feed him. Juan Carlos was working as a bus driver, and Estefanía married a man much older than her when she was 17 years old.

Javier was in a rehabilitation center because he fell into the same world of drugs as his father.

Though he got sober, his new path was short lived; men murdered him seven years ago over a pair of sneakers, of all things. He was only 23.

Meanwhile, I had obviously lost my job as a nursing assistant, and it was impossible for me to get another because no one would hire me with my criminal record.

Though free at last, I felt morally destroyed. I had always been a good mother, constantly worrying about the well-being of my children; when I got out of prison, my little ones were neglected, skinny, and dirty. It broke my heart. The news of Javier’s addiction further destroyed me.

Helping others overcome social stigma and make a living after incarceration

Paula shows off some of the jewelry crafted by members of her foundatio
Paula shows off some of the jewelry crafted by members of her foundation | Photo by Pamela Castillo Díaz

When I was imprisoned, I met women sentenced to 25 years in prison for having as little as 1 gram of drugs. I promised them, “One day, I will go out and fight for you.” In October 2008, I created the Mujeres Valientes (Brave Women) Foundation.

We started with 22 women, who then involved their husbands or brothers-in-law. I realized that this type of injustice went beyond gender, so I changed the name to Fundación Familias Unidas por el Cambio (Families United for Change). We work to help people who have been imprisoned reintegrate back into society.

Today, we work with over 300 families. We teach them to make hair shampoo, skin creams, antibacterial gel, and other cleaning products. Our participants make everything by hand, and then live off the income from the sales of these products. We also sell handicrafts, necklaces, and straps for blouses.

I’m proud to help these people, who often have no other options. We all deserve to make a living and support our families, regardless of our pasts. 

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Pamela Castillo Díaz, 35, has been an Ecuadorian journalist and storyteller for 15 years. She has worked as an editor in recognized Ecuadorian media, including Diario HOY, El Comercio, and Diario Extra. She currently develop and manage her website, pamelacastillodiaz.com.