December 2015

Prison by Birth: Children Paying for their Parents’ Mistakes

Childhood and prison are two things that should never be mixed yet thanks to the Bolivian penal system, children of convicts often face a youth of growing up in a cell.
Many parents in Bolivia are forced to bring their children with them to prison. There is no one on the outside that can help them, and therefore their children have to live with them.

By: Charleen Vetås
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Manger - Norway


She has to share it with seven other women and five children
Photo: Charleen Vetås

In one of the rooms, up in the second floor of the San Sebastian Mujeres lives Maria. She is one of many people who live in the women’s prison in Cochabamba. Her room is not a large one, and she has to share it with seven other women and five children; three of them hers. Currently, they are thirteen years old, five years old, and three years old. All four are forced to share a single bottom bunk bed. Despite these awful conditions, Maria had no choice but to bring her children to the prison. She is from La Paz and does not have any family here in Cochabamba; there is no one on the outside that can help her take care of her children.

Despite living in a penal institution, her children are thankfully given the opportunity to receive education; her oldest child goes to school every afternoon. When she goes to school she also gets to meet other teenagers and interact and develop her social skills, while Maria’s two youngest children go to kindergarten every day from nine AM to four PM. The head of San Sebastian Mujeres, captain Rocio Rivas, says that this arrangement applies to every child in prison.

- “The prison has also provided a room upstairs for the children to be in when they get back where they can do homework. There are also two teachers available for them three hours every afternoon should they have any problems or questions about their homework,” says Rivas.


Photo: Charleen Vetås

Motherhood is a challenge but prison makes it tougher, and if you need something you have to work for it at a much lower wage. Maria provides for her children alone, and she has to work every day cleaning clothes in the prison. Even though she works as much as she can, it is not enough. She has three more children that she wanted to bring with her to the prison, but she cannot afford a private room that is big enough for all seven of them. Therefore, her three other children have to live in an orphanage. She really wishes that they could all live together because she feels that it is best when the children are with her.

When the children come back from school and kindergarten, she likes to keep an eye on them to know that they are safe. She does not think that they are safe when she is not with them. There are 10-12 police officers that patrol, which is a very small amount relative to the amount of prisoners, especially with so many young vulnerable children around. Rivas says that they take action if a mother is mistreating a child that can lead to the child being taken away.

When you walk around in the prison you will notice that all the children are very young. That is because there is a law that says that children can only live in the prison with their parent until they are six years old. Children above that age live in homes provided by the prison if they are available. Those children can come to the prison Friday night or Saturday morning and stay there until Sunday.


When the children come back from school and kindergarten, she likes to keep an eye on them.
Photo: Charleen Vetås

- “That way they can keep their bond with their mother,” says Rivas.

However, there are some exceptions and Maria’s thirteenyear- old child is one of them. Right now there are three children over six years old that live in the prison. Children over the age of six are either leaving the prison soon and others live there because they do not have any other place to go.

- “We make an exception for them because kicking them out on the street will expose them to too many dangers,” says Rivas.

Julia is one of the mothers with a child above the maximum age. She does not have a home on the outside and the few family members she has got are not able to take care of her.

- “I have been in prison since 2007 and so has my daughter. She was nine years old at the time, and now she is seventeen. They could not find a place for my daughter, so she has to suffer for what I did. It is awful for her living in here and she really does not want to do it. I know and she knows that there is nothing we can do about it, so we just have to hang in there.

Maria’s and Julia’s story are not unique. This is the reality for many women and children living in San Sebastian Mujeres and for people in prisons all over Bolivia. At the moment, there are 181 women and 40 children in San Sebastian Mujeres.

The women of San Sebastian Mujeres all have their reasons why they are in prison. Some have committed a crime; others are just very unfortunate with their situation. Most of the women are people with very few resources and no family on the outside. They have no choice but to bring their children with them to the prison.

Motherhood is a challenge but prison makes it tougher, and if you need something you have to work for it at a much lower wage.

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