In Bolivia, Behind Bars Might Be The Best Place For Kids

In Bolivia, more than 1,400 children are currently living with their parents behind bars in that country's prisons. Officials and some parents say that given the alternatives, it might be for the best.

One incarcerated woman says this:

"Above all in this life, I am a mother," says [Andrea Virginia] Tapia, who is in her 30s and is the mother of seven kids, four of whom live in the prison with her. (The others live with her mother.) "They are best with me," she adds, as her three-year-old snuggles into her lap, "regardless of where that is."

The director of the penal system agrees.

"We've seen that this is best for mother, or father, and child," says Jorge Lopez, Director of Bolivia's Penitentiary System. "It's important not to rip those bonds between parent and child."

Altruistic sentiments about mother-child boding aside, there are some practical reasons as well.

In Bolivia, South America's poorest country, it's often financially impossible for family members on the outside to take on more mouths to feed. Orphanages aren't feasible, either: "Children live in worse conditions there than in the prisons - and without their moms and dads," says Rene Estensorro, a psychologist at Semilla de Vida (Seed of Life), a non-governmental organization that works with imprisoned mothers and their children. Lopez agrees. Releasing the kids from the prisons, he says, "means [their] direct entryway onto the street."

Like with the children staying with their mothers in both Mexican and American prisons, people worry about the effects incarceration can have on the children.

The equally important question, of course, is what prison time does to the children. Estensorro acknowledges that "we see a lot of repression in the children." Kids inside the Women's Correctional Facility are punished for normal behavior like waking up in the middle of the night - because they end up waking up everyone else inside the cramped sleeping quarters. School age kids leave the prison each day to attend regular schools but nonetheless suffer isolation from their peers. Another problem: the lack of 24-hour medical care inside the prison. Worse, kids must sometimes share mom's punishment for bad behavior, like solitary confinement.

And that doesn't even include the well-being of 200 children stuck with their incarcerated parents during a prison riot that resulted in the tear-gassing of the facility. But in a society with few social services to offer children whose parents are incarcerated, maybe the occasional prison riot is less dangerous than a few years spent caring for themselves on the streets.

In Bolivia, Keeping Kids And Moms Together - In Prison [Time]

Earlier: Baby Girls Add Touch Of Pink, Peace To Mexico's Prison System
Moms Behind Bars: How To Make The Best Of A Bad Situation