In Bolivian prisons, blood is thicker than bars

by @SaraShahriari January 12, 2015 5:00AM ET

Entire families live in San Pedro men's prison, as it's often cheaper and safer on the inside

Child Welfare
A 9-year-old girl plays with a ball inside the Obrajes women's prison, in La Paz, Bolivia.
Santi Palacios

LA PAZ, Bolivia — The overcrowded, colonial-era San Pedro men’s prison occupies one square block in the heart of downtown, its crumbling adobe walls concealing a hive of wooden walkways, metal roofs and cramped rooms. The blazing Andean sun shines down into courtyards but leaves narrow passageways in shadow, casting extremes of light and darkness.

Everywhere, there is a buzz of prisoner activity, because inside San Pedro inmates move freely during the day. Perpetrators of violent and nonviolent crimes, people with sentences and those awaiting trial, mix as they work. Men in ragged clothes cluster near the barred entrance, trying to sell key chains they have made, and others in clean, pressed polo shirts stand in kiosks serving food. Prisoner-elected security guards (police rarely venture beyond the prison walls) patrol tiny plazas, and men known as taxis earn a few cents from visitors by locating inmates. For San Pedro is a relentlessly commercial environment where inmates must purchase or rent their own cells, and the prison is divided into sections that make up a concentrated real-estate market. Those with money can expect better security and nicer lodgings, while the poorest sleep in stairwells.

Every weekday morning, the large door separating the prisoners of San Pedro from the populace of La Paz opens, letting out a trickle of humanity: mostly women carrying babies cocooned in colorful fabric slings and backpack-wearing children in school uniforms. These are the unofficial inmates of San Pedro, who live with their jailed husbands and fathers because it is more economical — and according to interviews, perhaps safer — behind bars than outside in the world.

Bolivian law allows the children to live with their mothers, but only in women’s prisons and only till the age of 6. Once they are older, the law says, the children must go live with extended family or, if that is not an option, into group homes with orphans and other children whose families cannot care for them. But in reality, hundreds of kids, many of them well beyond age 6, live in low- and medium-security men’s prisons. According to estimates by Bolivia’s independent human rights office, the number of children living in prisons ranges between 800 and 1,500. This is a constantly fluctuating population, say experts, and up-to-date information on how many children live in each prison is difficult to obtain, but the majority are found in the country’s three major urban areas of La Paz/El Alto, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. 

People wait in front of the San Pedro prison where 12 supporters of Brazilian Corinthians football team are being held, in Oruro, 240 km southwest of La Paz, Bolivia on March 15, 2013.
Aizar Raldes / AFP / Getty Images

After her husband was imprisoned for assault, Juana couldn’t make ends meet. “When he went in, I had nothing,” says Juana, whose name has been changed because of the stigma attached to prisoners and their families. When she went to visit her husband he told her, “ ‘How can I provide for you? I don’t have anything.’ He was crying,” she recalls. “Our families helped some, but they also have needs.” So she joined him in San Pedro and brought their three daughters. 

Maria del Carmen Michel Araujo is a lawyer with Bolivia's Catholic Prison Ministry that works with prisoners across the country. She says situations like Juana’s are common. 

“There is a lack of preventative policies and help for families,” she says. “We cannot ignore the reality that in Bolivia it’s poor people who are in prison. ... We have to do wide-ranging work in prisons to find a way for these kids to grow up like normal kids, without losing their relationships with their parents, but also without living in a violent world.”

For families who are able to raise several hundred dollars for the initial purchase of a room, living inside San Pedro can indeed offer economic advantages: A prisoner receives one meal a day, children under 6 receive two, and electricity and water are paid for by the prison. Juana, like many women here, cooks and sells food, and with that income she can buy clothes, more food and school supplies for her older children. As in many Bolivian prisons, school-age children in San Pedro leave to attend classes, while younger kids spend part of the day in a preschool within prison walls. 

Juana says that some parents neglect their children in prison, but for the rest, the environment behind bars actually allows some amount of security, controlled as it is by the prisoners’ own regulations, which include elected leaders and strict controls on fighting — something that outsiders don’t understand. 

“I think that these days, in the street or inside, it’s the same. There are always good people and bad people,” she says. 

Obrajes women's prison in La Paz, Bolivia
Santi Palacios

Having children who live in prison is not a phenomenon unique to Bolivia. Argentina is home to limited-detention programs for mothers and young children, and Germany allows young children to live with their mothers in prison if courts deem that to be in the child’s best interest. Even some U.S. states have prison nurseries where babies can live with their mothers for better child development and to help moms turn over a new leaf. 

But Bolivia is different because children live in men’s prisons, and families mix with the general prison population while the police seem to turn a blind eye. In addition, the country has a very high rate of pretrial detention — more than 80 percent of the country’s prison population is awaiting or in the middle of a trial — and incarceration for small-scale drug smuggling. This, combined with a painfully slow judicial process and a growing but fragile safety net for the poor, makes the question of what to do with the children of incarcerated parents especially urgent. 

René Estenssoro, an advocate who has worked in Bolivian prisons for more than 10 years, says that some children living in prisons become victims of abuse and are exposed to an unhealthy adult word that includes drugs and alcohol. But, in some cases, he admits, children may be better off with incarcerated parents than on the outside. 

“I have truly seen fathers and mothers who are totally dedicated, who do everything to take care of their children,” Estenssoro says. “Why should these parents and children be separated? So the child can go to an orphanage? To live in what conditions? Many times an orphanage doesn’t have many resources and will be like the prison — or worse.”

For him, the decision on whether a child can remain with a parent in prison should be decided on a case-by-case basis by specialized social workers — a level of attention that does not exist today. 

But Lidia Rodriguez, of Bolivia’s human rights office, disagrees. “It can’t be denied that in different environments there is some risk,” she says. “But the greatest risk is always in prisons.” 

A 5-year-old boy holds the bars of a gate inside the Obrajes women's prison, in La Paz, Bolivia
Santi Palacios

Recent national headlines seem to support her view. In 2013, a young boy died along with dozens of men in a fire set by rival groups in Palmasola prison in the city of Santa Cruz, capital of Bolivia's eastern-most state, and a girl was raped by her own family members in San Pedro. Those events, along with a meningitis scare in San Pedro that had health authorities scrambling, spurred a renewed campaign by government and nongovernmental groups to remove children from behind prison walls. 

Rodriguez says that over the past year, governmental and nongovernmental organizations working together secured the removal of hundreds of children over 11 years old from prisons across the country, the majority of whom now live with extended family. But without regular and long-term check-ins — the responsibility of overburdened local social-service agencies — it is difficult to know whether the lives of the kids are better on the outside, or worse. 

To counter the vulnerability of children of incarcerated parents, both inside and outside prison, several small-scale programs by nongovernmental organizations to improve their quality of life are underway in Bolivia. In the central city of Cochabamba, children of inmates from two local prisons board a bus every weekday at 7 a.m. to spend the day at school and in the Center for Comprehensive Prison and Community Support (known by its Spanish acronym CAICC), a small nonprofit. There, a social worker and small team of educators try to broaden children’s horizons far beyond prison walls via trips to local parks and sites around the city, regular help with schoolwork and encouragement to study beyond high school. On a recent afternoon outing marking the beginning of December school vacations, a group of teenagers from the center hiked up an arid mountainside, pausing to look out over the green valley of Cochabamba, dotted by herds of cows, and the city beyond. CAICC also serves young people from high-risk families in the community, and on this trip teens from these different backgrounds blended together, talking and laughing like any group of young people in summer camp or on a school trip. 

Children play beneath laundry hung to dry inside the Obrajes women's prison in La Paz, Bolivia
Santi Palacios

Daniel, whose name has been changed, is 15 years old and lives in a Cochabamba prison. After his father was imprisoned for drug-related offenses, he stayed briefly with extended family, then moved to a group home. Recently, he moved into the prison with his father, along with his mother and brother. 

“I prefer to be with my parents. That’s why I left the home,” he says. “Children have to grow up with their parents, because other people don’t care for a child in the same way.” He is concerned about how living in prison may affect his younger brother, who is 8 and also attends programs at CAICC, but also says the center is helping both of them stay focused on education. “There should be more places like this, because there are prisons everywhere and kids who need help.” 

CAICC serves dozens of children of prisoners in Cochabamba ages 6 to 17, and also runs a daycare center, but these are the lucky few. Programs like CAICC do not reach all the children living in prisons in Cochabamba, let alone the rest of Bolivia.

Women watch a film in the Obrajes women's prison, in La Paz, Bolivia
Santi Palacios

Back in La Paz, a road winds south through the city away from San Pedro to the women’s prison of Obrajes, where Andrea lives with her young daughter. She has served four years of a sentence for selling paint thinner, the cheap drug that she was addicted to. This is her second incarceration as an adult, though when she was a child, Andrea spent time in prison with her own mother, as well as in group homes. 

Men are not allowed to live inside, and as the years of the women’s sentences go by, some, like Andrea, find themselves the only caregiver and economic support for their children. When Andrea entered prison, she had two of her children living with her, a son and a daughter. But when her son turned 9 last year, she was confronted with the question of where he could live. Older children exist in a gray area and parents are constantly wondering if and when they will be pressured to send them away. With no family on the outside to help raise her kids or provide financial support, a group home was her only option. But she is worried, especially because she’s been in this situation before with an older son, during her first stint in prison. Andrea says she sent him to a home “because they told me that children 6 and up would be removed. He went to the home, and I signed a paper ... And now I haven’t seen him for six years.” She doesn’t know if he is still in a home or out on the street, and she worries for his safety, but doesn’t know how to find him. 

Her concerns are not unfounded. While some homes are very good, say experts, dozens of claims of sexual abuse in orphanages have been reported in recent years, and in November 2014, the press was full of stories of an infant living in a La Paz home for children, who died from injuries following an alleged rape — though that version of events has since been questioned. It’s not just group homes that parents fear — suspicion that family members may harm or neglect children is also widespread. 

But for Andrea, at least for the moment, it seems the story of her younger son is a positive one. He left prison for a group home in 2014, and came to visit her during a recent school vacation. She smiles, thinking of him. “He was happy.”