The women that remain hidden behind bars awaiting judgement in Argentina’s prisons have been hailed as the country’s forgotten population by some, but even fewer remember the overlooked children who accompany their mothers side-by-side through the poverty and violence of prison life in South America.
The number of female prisoners in the federal prison system in Argentina grew by 205% between 1990-2001, but there are still very few prison facilities for women in the country; relegating the nation’s female offenders (and those awaiting proper trial) to small compounds, frequently lacking proper sanitation, and often hundreds of miles away from their communities. Amidst the clamour of women’s voices in these squashed complexes is the faint sound of children playing in the prison kindergarten- if these women have been sidelined and forgotten, even fewer people remember that Argentina is one of the few countries in the world which allows women to have their young children with them inside, up until the age of 4. A recent report revealed that as many as 9 out of every 10 mothers living in prison with their children are still awaiting a final judgement in the criminal proceedings against them, while over a 1/3 of all inmates arrive either pregnant or with young children. For many of these children, the prison ends up being on their birth certificate; a reminder of the poverty and violence which will, in most cases, follow them throughout their lives. These children are the only ‘possession’ permitted to the women, who in most cases depend on the companionship of their children as a way of forgetting the biting reality of where they are.
The hygiene in some of these prison facilities is very poor- many live without adequate access to bathrooms or cleaning facilities, and a common punishment for young mothers is to lock them in isolation away from their child in a dark cell, with no bathroom, and a floor lined with cockroaches. When questioned, 76.8% of the female inmates didn’t know what their rights were in this situation, while 62% of the mothers in Unit 31 felt that their children didn’t receive adequate nutrition within the prison. As many as 90 children are currently living within the prison system with their mothers, until being moved to a state home facility away from their mothers at the age of 4, or handed over to other relatives if they have any. For many of these children, whose mothers are inside for robbery, drug trafficking, or homicide, the prison walls form the only home they have ever known. 75% of the women have at least one child, and most are uneducated, very young, alone, and have problems with alcohol, drugs, or both. Many gave birth handcuffed to the bed, so their children have never even left the compound. In September 2005 it was verified that typical cell sizes are 2m x 10m (the average size of a trailer used to transport cattle), and mother and child wile away most hours of the day locked inside.
The isolation of the inmates is almost complete, as most facilities are so far away from communities that travel fares to visit are expensive. A study in the Instituto de Recuperación de Mujeres de Rosario in Santa Fe Province determined that the majority of inmates had been abandoned by families and partners, and 60% reported that they had never been visited. Others have reported that before being allowed a family visit, they are subjected to humiliating “hygiene inspections” by prison guards. Meanwhile, 18% of the women in Unit 31 reported physical or sexual abuse at the hands of the prison guards whilst inside. Some women turn to lesbianism to fight the increasing isolation, locked inside with no court judgement on the visible horizon; others depend on their children for the emotional stability which was left at the prison door, and for many, is a long-lost memory. A 4th birthday within the walls of the penitentiary centres is one of the saddest days of all the long years of confinement stretching ahead of the women; hailing the inevitable separation of mother and child, in many cases, for years, without the possibility of a visit.
Silvia Rodas is one such woman- she has done stints in all the Buenos Aires prisons for bad conduct, and until a few years ago, her young daughter went from prison to prison with her. At the age of 4, the daughter was handed over to her grandfather for care, while Silvia was moved to a prison much further away. Silvia has since achieved 5 stars for good behaviour in the hope that she will be visited by her daughter soon. She has also now become a lesbian, and shares her small cell with her partner, Jessica, who is now her only source of companionship. Visits from her daughter and father are rare, due to the travel costs, and last only a few short hours.
Sandra Valdez meanwhile has been freed, and has now managed to move to a new neighbourhood, find a new boyfriend, and has a new son. She had gone to prison for drug trafficking- a desperate attempt to raise enough money to feed her children. She says she now that massively regrets it. After being released from prison, she had to fight hard for custody of her children, and she begged on the street to scrape together enough food to feed them all, but she strives to make them happy, even if she is not. Her daughter, who was taken away at a young age, doesn’t remember that she was born in the prison, or that her mother used to live there. Sandra is trying to turn over a new leaf, and shield her children now from the violence and poverty which dominated the beginning of their lives.
These children are the lucky ones though- they either had family on the outside, waiting for them, or were mercifully too young to remember the hardship of life as a prisoner for a crime they didn’t commit (and in many cases, for which their mothers hadn’t been convicted either). In most cases, these children were born into a prison in which the whole perspective of the world is confined behind bars and high walls. They have never committed a crime, but are prisoners nonetheless, living in a place immersed in sad stories of abandonment, abuse, isolation and poverty. The inmates’ children share their lives in the lockup for years without ever playing outside the gates- something which must inevitably cast a dark shadow over such a young life, which will have deeper and more lasting consequences than the mere ‘place of birth’ on their IDs.