Serving prison time as a family
In Bolivia, 'the worst family may be better than the best institution.'
La Paz, Bolivia
Morning sunlight falls on two young girls clapping out the universal cadence of patty-cake. And, like little girls everywhere, when they tire of it, they run off, giddy with laughter, passing a group of boys hunched over a game of marbles.Skip to next paragraph
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But this isn't a typical playground. These children are in prison.
Here in San Pedro Prison, 250 children have moved into cells with their fathers who are among 1,500 male inmates incarcerated for crimes ranging from money laundering to murder. In some cases entire families squeeze in – turning cement cells into closets stuffed with beds, clothes, toys, and utensils.
This is Bolivia's answer to preserving the family unit when poverty and crime would otherwise separate children from their parents.
In most cases, the arrangement provides a type of social security that the inmates' immediate families don't get from either their extended families or the state. Without the father working, women must find jobs, not act as caretakers. In other cases, mothers themselves are in jail or have abandoned the family altogether. When whole families move in it's often for moral support, to keep the family together, and because, in many instances, they have nowhere else to go.
But it raises an important question: Are children better off with their parents no matter what the environment is? Or is a sense of family secondary to a sense of safety?
For Filippo Clementi, who is the priest for the prison in La Paz, the answer is simple: A family belongs together – no matter where it is.
"The kids here humanize the prison," says Father Clementi. "The worst family is always better than the best institution."
In many ways, San Pedro is a city unto itself. On a recent day inside the turquoise walls, soup shops and convenience stores do a brisk business. Family laundry hangs over balconies. Men are busy working as carpenters or launderers. A sign outside a prime two-story cell advertises "cell for sale." And amid the community din of it all are clutches of young children playing games on the ground, the squall of an infant in a father's arms, and a teacher's instructions wafting through the window of a classroom for the prison's youngest children.
Carlos Santos is the president of the prison's parents association. Here on preventive detention pending a trial on charges he declines to discuss, Mr. Santos holds his 1-year-old daughter, Fabiola, who lives with him while her mother works outside the prison all day.
Santos says that incarcerated parents make sure the prison is safe for their children. Some inmates have drug problems and use foul language, he says, but they are in the minority. "If anything happens [to the children], we call a meeting, and [the prisoner responsible is] immediately punished," he says, handing off his daughter to another inmate so he can pull up a chair to sit on. "It is more secure in here than out there."
Lt. Col. Edgar Tellez, who is in charge of the jail, disagrees. He says inmates aren't separated for crimes – so high-level offenders live among petty thieves. The children wander among all of them. "It is not a good environment for them," he says. "It pains me to see them here."
But by law, children are allowed to live with their parents in prison until age 6. In fact, they often stay much longer. No one tries to change the status quo, Colonel Tellez says, not even him. "It's not my job."