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Middlesex native on mission in Bolivia

| Sunday, June 21, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Jeff Sved, of Middlesex, at the open market in Cochabamba, Bolivia, selling goods made by prison inmates.
Jeff Sved, of Middlesex, in Cochabamba, Bolivia

For nearly three years, Middlesex native Jeff Sved has been in and out of Bolivian prisons.

He's not a career criminal, but a volunteer in prison ministry with Franciscan Mission Service, a nonprofit that trains and supports lay Catholics for long-term and short-term overseas missions.

Sved, 26, recently extended his stay in Cochabamba, Bolivia, through the end of 2016.

“I can see the connection between my own personal growth and the opportunities that exist in prison,” he said of why he wants to stay. “We're with people to share in the joys of life.”

The missioners, as they prefer to be called, base their service on St. Francis' teachings of living among and serving one's community.

“We are meant to be in service to each other,” said FMS executive director Kim Smolik. “Another approach to the world is to see the good and the God in everyone, to reflect back what is good, not find what is broken.”

The way Bolivian prisons operate presents a unique opportunity for this type of service.

The prisons are like small societies within four walls. Inmates literally run the prisons because there aren't guards inside. An elected group of inmates maintains order.

The prisoners are not assigned to cells and are free to go wherever they choose. Visitors may come and go as they please, though guards control what items come in and go out.

Inmates must earn money to pay for meals and sleeping space, so they work in workshops inside the prisons.

This is where Sved spends most of his time. Every Wednesday, he takes the inmates' goods to sell for them at the large open market.

He regularly visits four prisons and makes his way to all six each month.

“I wouldn't say that I do anything concrete with people in prisons here,” he said. “I spend time with them and they spend time with me. They cease to be strangers very quickly.”

A path toward service

Sved, a 2007 graduate of Shady Side Academy, got involved in the Franciscan ministry in college while volunteering at a soup kitchen in Philadelphia.

He was attending Villanova University for chemical engineering with a minor in theology.

“I was in the lab and classrooms during the day and at other times I'd be at various service sites,” he said. “Service has always been a part of my life, but it's grown and changed over the past five years.”

His first service trip was in middle school when he traveled to Alabama to build homes with a group similar to Habitat for Humanity. In college he went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

After earning his degree he spent a year with the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry teaching math at a women's prison in Delaware.

Later, he organized a retreat to SCI Chester, in Pennsylvania, with Kairos Prison Ministry.

“Many of the men with Kairos were engineers and had been working to get to a point where they could serve others,” Sved said. “I figured, if there are ways to serve others, why (would) I spend my ‘prime' years making money so I could serve others later?”

He decided to continue his service through FMS's long-term overseas program.

A new way of life

Cochabamba is in central Bolivia. It has a population of about 800,000, making it the country's fourth-largest city. It sits in a fertile valley of the Andes Mountains.

Residents there, and in Bolivia as a whole, struggle with poverty.

The city itself has modern amenities like running water, electricity and Internet access, but rural areas don't have those resources, Sved said.

He shares an apartment just outside the city with a few other FMS missioners.

He spoke little Spanish when he arrived, but his conversational Spanish has improved dramatically.

FMS provides all overseas missioners with three months of training before they leave. They learn about cultural norms and strategies on how to interact with the poor, Smolik said.

“In Jeff's case, he spent time in Cochabamba getting to know different groups,” she said.

“He volunteered with them until he found a place where he could plug in. He's developed quite an extensive ministry there.”

Affirming humanity

Sved said that affirming the humanity of the prisoners is an important aspect of what we does because Bolivian prisons are overcrowded and the living conditions are poor.

In 2014, Bolivian prisons held nearly 15,000 people — three times their capacity, according to a story published in La Razón (The Reason), a daily newspaper published in La Paz.

The government has implemented a plan to reduce the prison population by expediting pending cases, but there are still nearly 14,000 inmates, the newspaper reported in April.

Unless the prisoners tell him, Sved doesn't know their criminal history or for what crime they're incarcerated.

“We're trying to remove some of those labels of ‘this is what you did wrong,' ” Sved said.

“To be in the prison and not talk about what they're in for and define themselves by other things, with more positive labels.”

Most inmates eventually get out of prison because the government doesn't have life sentences. The longest sentence is 30 years, which is considered extreme, Sved said. The most common sentence is eight years, which usually gets reduced to four, he said.

Sved said one of the benefits of the way Bolivian prisons operate is that they meet inmates' social needs. This is unlike American prisons where physical needs such as food and a bed are met.

“We've lost that self-rediscovery outside of society after having done something wrong,” he said.

What's next?

Sved said he'll likely return to the United States at the end of next year, at least for a while.

FMS has a three-week re-entry program.

He said he's uncertain of what he'll do next, but he's sure it won't be a “traditional career path.”

“My senior year of college, I was making biofuels,” he said. “I can't imagine going back to any of that.”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com.

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