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.
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."
Indeed, Izamiro Hidalgo, serving 30 years for murder, says his family is with him because they would be homeless otherwise.
During the seven years Mr. Hidalgo has served so far, his family has lived with him in the same cell, #32, the entire time. In fact, three of his five kids were born here. For his family, living in San Pedro is a way of life – the only way his kids know.
"[My wife] isn't from here, and has no other family," he says.
On a recent lunch break in their dank, dark cell – hardly more than a 6-by-6 foot square with the amenities of home such as a rug, a TV, and a bedspread – the family spooned up a grim gruel of rice and lentils they got from the prison food service. It was a prosaic scene of kids alternately gobbling down or straying from their food, with Mom keeping them in line. "It's comfy in here," Hidalgo says. But how the youngsters feel about their home is unclear because prison authorities would not permit the Monitor to speak to any children here.
There is still much that needs to be changed, says Mr. Santos. He wants the state to offer food to the children. Right now they line up in the kitchen for leftovers, after inmates have received their rations. He also wants a better education program within the system – besides the nursery school program, only one class for ages 4 to 6 is offered for a couple dozen students.
The prisoners themselves have a lot to learn, too. The prison psychology department has hung up a sign advertising an upcoming seminar: "How to be a good father." Right next to it is another sign urging inmates not to swear. After all, there are children around.
Santos, a first-time father, says it's hard to be a single parent. His girlfriend visits once, sometimes twice, a day, but he says he knows he bears the responsibility of prime caregiver for their daughter. "I have learned you just have to give them love," he says. He says their example shows those inmates who are single how to become caregivers, and that everyone is motivated to be on their best behavior.
But no matter how aptly they fulfill their fatherly responsibilities, children face other uncontrollable obstacles. Kids color, paste, and play games in the nursery program on a recent day. They could be in their neighborhood kindergarten for all they know, says teacher Doris Cruzfuentes. But that all changes once they move on to elementary school and beyond. "They are often stigmatized when they go out to school," she says, "and come home to the prison."
Tellez says he understands the needs that some parents have, but that it shouldn't compromise the overall safety of the children or the efficacy of the prison system. "You can't put the particular situation or need of one parent in front of the general problems of the prison," he says.
But don't tell that to Marina Quisipi. For her, the immediate need of a home is what is most pressing. Ms. Quisipi, who sits in her cell with a 2-week-old slung across her back, has lived with her husband and five children in San Pedro for 18 months. The back wall of the jail cell is plastered in magazine photos of teddy bears – a remnant from a previous inmate with children. "My husband decided we should live here," she says simply. It can be cramped and dirty. She keeps an eye on her children all day.
But it's the best alternative. "What else are we supposed to do?"