"She doesn't know it's a prison. She thinks it's her house." That's Karina Rendon, a 23-year-old woman living in a 144-square-foot prison cell with her toddler daughter and two other mothers and their children at Mexico's Santa Martha Acatitla prison. As the Times reports today, 53 children under the age of 6 live at the prison, where their mothers are incarcerated for crimes ranging from drug dealing (Ms. Rendon), to kidnapping and murder.
Ms. Rendon, explains writer James C. McKinley Jr., makes a living selling snacks to visitors so that she can then buy food for her fragile, often-ailing daughter from the prison grocery (she considers the food at the prison cafeteria unhealthy.) "I think the best thing for my daughter would be for her to be outside with her grandmother," Rendon admits. "But the truth is I need her. She is something special."
Interestingly, the majority of the women interviewed seem to be mothers to daughters. In addition to Ms. Rendon, there is Diane Merlos Espericueta, also with a toddler daughter, Jacqueline, and Victoria Jaramillo (pictured above), mother to a 3-month-old girl, Frida. And, despite the constant threat of violence in the prison, the prison's warden explains that the children enjoy a protective cloak offered by the other prisoners, even the motherless ones, tapping into what the Times describes as "the collective maternal instinct of the 1,680 women locked up here." "The minors are highly respected by the population," says warden Margarita Malo. "The fact we have children here creates a mind-set of solidarity. I have never seen aggression on the part of the inmates toward the children. Everyone acts as if they could be their children, and they don't want anything to happen to them."