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Parents care for kids at home in Bolivia's prisons

Police enter San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia, only sporadically, leaving inmates to enforce order among the prison population - and their children. Families are welcome.

Entering the San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia, is a matter of taking a few steps from one of the city's largest and busiest plazas, and into its most notorious prison. All around the plaza traffic whirls, kids walk to school, and pigeons peck at lunch leftovers strewn around trashcans. Along the southern end stretches a long adobe wall, marked by a few dark windows and the prison's broad door, which reveals a black-barred gate. Men crush up against the gate, calling to their family members and lawyers or offering to help visitors locate prisoners inside.

One claustrophobic corridor of police searches and official stamps later, visitors are spit out of the passageway, through the gate and into the milling mass of prisoners - some of them wearing ragged clothes and trying to sell keychains and wooden spoons they made themselves, others wearing pressed button-down shirts and shiny watches. There are men everywhere, of every age and size, ranging from those accused of crimes like pick-pocketing to those convicted of rape and murder. There are no police inside the prison; they enter only sporadically to conduct searches.

Etson* is a young father waiting sentencing on a drug trafficking charge. He has four children, and three live with him inside San Pedro full time.

"There's nobody outside to help us," he told DW. "And nobody takes care of them like a father or a mother. I can't trust other people; so many things can happen [outside], like rapes. No one else will take care of them the way I take care of them."

The prison from outside

San Pedro is the country's oldest functioning prison

According to official numbers, across Bolivia roughly 1,500 children live with a parent in prisons, though some activists say the number is probably much higher, especially during holidays when children enter prisons to spend time with incarcerated mothers and fathers.

Many of the mothers of San Pedro are like Rosy, who found caring for her two daughters financially impossible when her husband was sentences to several years in prison for assault. A housewife, she couldn't find a job lucrative enough to pay the 150 euros ($205) needed for rent, utilities, food and school supplies for her children. So she moved to prison.

"I had savings, and my husband when he was working gave me money, but when he went to prison I just couldn't support myself," she said. "The first thing I did was spend my savings, on food. I had to go into the prison with my husband, so we could support ourselves and so my daughters can be happy and with their father."

Today Rosy and her children pass in out of the prison gates every day, the kids on their way to school, and Rosy on her way to a nearby market to buy food she will later cook and sell.

In some ways, San Pedro is more like a condominium association that a prison. Its cells are not barred cages, but small rooms the prisoner can leave whenever he wishes, and to which he holds the key. Some sections, for example Los Alamos, are considered safer and more upscale than others, so cells there are more expensive. If a person cannot afford to buy or rent a cell, he can rent a space in the dormitory-like rooms that occupy parts of the prison.

Living in one of the eight sections also requires that residents abide by the section rules, which are enforced not by the police, who control the only gate in and out, but by other inmates, selected by their fellow prisoners Too many infractions, such as fighting, and a resident can be evicted, doomed to sleep in hallways and exist in a no-man's land where he enjoys none of the security the sections offer, or moved to a maximum security prison.

'Fun to live in prison'

Raising a child around violent criminals seems a horrible fate, but Rosy says the prison is not as chaotic or dangerous as she feared.

"At the beginning, when I came in, I was afraid. I thought that anything could happen here, but the days went by," she said. "The oldest was five years old, so they have grown up here. Everything depends on the parents, how we organize to protect and take care of the children ... Outside it's the same."

Rosy has three daughters, who are eight, five and just a few months old.

"It's okay there," says the five-year-old, Nancy, who doesn't want to live anywhere but San Pedro. "It's fun."

But living in prison

isn't always safe

and fun. Last year a girl came forward to reveal that she was raped by multiple male family members in San Pedro. A few months later a child died in his father's arms in Santa Cruz's Palmasola prison as a fight between inmates turned into a deadly blaze.

A prisoner cleans a prison dormitory

Prisoners clean their own living spaces in the women's prison Obrajes in La Paz

"Inside Bolivian prisons extremely unjust things happen to some children. There have been rapes of children inside prisons, physical abuse," Rene Estenssoro, an advocate for prisoners and their families, says. "But you cannot generalize and say that all mothers and fathers in prison are bad parents."

The lack of adequate alternative housing for children of incarcerated parents makes for a stark choice. According to Esrenssoro, each case needs to be reviewed individually.

"When you want to change something structurally, it's not just a matter of making laws and saying 'At six years old, children are out,'" Estensorro says. "You must think of where they will go, who they will go with and why. How was the relationship between the child and the incarcerated parent? Was it very good, was it terrible? Was it abusive or totally loving? There are so many variables to take into account for each child, to decide whether the child has to leave the prison, or if the child needs to be with the father or mother."

*The names of the parents in this article have been changed to protect them.

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