Bolivia's prison children
Prisons in Bolivia are overcrowded, but not only with
adults. More than 1,200 youngsters live there while their parents serve
their sentences. The head of Bolivia's penitentiary system, Tomas
Molina, believes this situation is unique in the region. Under the
country's legislation, children under six years are allowed to stay in
their parents' cells.
However, Mr Molina acknowledges that they normally
remain in jail until they are much older "because nobody else can care
In the detention centre of San Pedro - the most
populated male prison in Bolivia's main city, La Paz - there are 200
children. "We have not had any problem with them. There is a sort of
internal pact that, if an inmate harms a child, he is likely to face
difficulties in the prison," says San Pedro's director, Ramiro Ulloa.
Children in that jail receive meals and education
under a government-sponsored programme. They are also supervised by
Inside the women's prison in La Paz's district of Obrajes, little
boys and girls wander freely in the yard as if they were playing at
school during a parents' meeting. The jail's director, Celida Vera, says
that more than 260 female inmates live there alongside 70 children. Many
women have more than one child, and families sometimes have to share
very small cells.
One of the inmates, Briseida, says that she had to
explain her son Carlos Patricio, 9, why she was in prison. "I told
him that I had misbehaved."
Most of the children in Obrajes do not why they live
there. Many were born behind bars.
Overcrowding seems to be worse in the Palmasola
prison, in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, which holds entire families.
Palmasola is considered one of the most dangerous jails in the country.
Around 400 women are reportedly living there. "It is like a town", says
Living conditions are no better in the central region of Cochabamba,
where the female detention centre of San Sebastian also holds a number
of children. Alejandra Canelas, a psychologist
working in a child day-care centre attached to the jail, claims that
youngsters frequently witness violence and even prostitution in the
Over 1,200 Bolivian infants accompany their parents in
prison According to the Bolivian authorities, the number of children
living in prisons has increased since the 1980s, when the government
took a tougher line against drug-trafficking.
Entire families ended up in jail because children had
nowhere to go when their parents were arrested. In one case, after
a police operation in Cochabamba, one family reportedly took their
parrot and a dog to prison because they did not want to leave them
The head of Bolivia's penitentiary system believes
that the presence of children in the country's jails is not a big
problem. "They would otherwise be on the streets facing the dangers of
crime," he says.
But Ms Canelas is not entirely convinced. She says
that authorities should be concerned about these boys' and girls' future