BOGOTA (TrustLaw) - Sprightly toddlers run about on a grassy field, outside what seems like a normal nursery with colourful walls and swings and slides in the playground. But the guards sporting blue camouflage gear and the barbed wire fence give the game away.
The nursery is inside the confines of Colombia’s largest women’s jail, the Good Shepherd prison, nestled in a residential neighbourhood in eastern Bogotá. Thirty five babies and toddlers live here with their mothers under a program the country began several years ago.
Teresa Rodriguez, who has completed one year of a 32-month sentence for drug dealing, says the nursery, where her one-year-old son spends most of the day, is a lifeline.
“Don’t get me wrong, I wish he could play outside of the prison, but the nursery is a good place for him where he can play with other children and have toys,” says Rodriguez. “It makes being here more bearable.”
Every week day, the prison mothers walk along the long, draughty concrete hallways to the nursery tucked away at one end of the jail, where they drop off their children. In the afternoon, they pick them up and take them back to their cells, where they sleep together.
In Colombia, mothers can keep their children with them behind bars until they are three. After that, they have to find a home for them outside the prison walls with relatives or friends, or through the state adoption agency.
“It’s up to each mother to decide whether or not it’s best to have their child with them in prison. I personally prefer to have him with me, even if it’s in a jail,” says 24-year-old Rodriguez. “Besides, I’ve got no-one with whom I can leave my son. The boy’s father is also in prison.”
In other countries across Latin America, including Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia, children are also allowed to live with their incarcerated mothers. In Mexico, children born behind bars can stay with their mothers until they are six.
Across the world, the growing trend is to let mothers keep their babies and toddlers in prison, and to provide special facilities for them.
In August, South Africa opened its first unit for imprisoned mothers and their children complete with a crèche and clinic. Earlier this month, New Zealand extended the time children can stay with their incarcerated mothers from nine months to two years.
Many experts say mothers and babies are usually better off together, even if that means being in a jail.
Imprisoned mothers with children are more likely to behave well and reintegrate back into society when they get out, goes the argument. And children separated from their mothers run a higher risk of dropping out of school and becoming criminals themselves.
In Colombia, prison mothers are entitled to food and two nappies a day for their children. Most rely on relatives and friends to bring clothes, medicine and extra food for their children during weekly visits.
But women complain it’s hard to cope when babies fall ill, saying it’s a constant struggle to keep small children warm and healthy in the damp cells.
“Sometimes you have to wait ages, sometimes days, for a doctor to come,” Rodriguez says.
SOLIDARITY AMONG MUMS
According to a 2007 report by Colombia’s Attorney General's office, female inmates live in overcrowded conditions, with poor sanitation and little access to mental health and reproductive health care.
With nearly 1,830 women living in cramped quarters at the Good Shepherd prison, tensions can escalate and brawls do break out.
Drug use inside prison is not uncommon, with some women developing a habit while locked up.
But despite the insalubrious surroundings, Rodriguez says her son has never been treated badly by the other inmates. She believes children can help prevent and defuse conflicts.
“We try to help each other out and get on with each other as best we can for the sake of the children,” says Rodriguez, dressed in tight jeans and a tee-shirt like most of her fellow prisoners.
The young mums have formed their own tight community. They share blankets and baby clothes, and take turns looking after each other’s children when one of them is working or taking a shower. Inmates and prison guards can be seen cooing over newborn babies.
Some female prisoners get to earn $1.50 a day tending flowerbeds, cleaning or making handicrafts, which they can choose to spend at the prison’s food kiosks.
Most are allowed conjugal visits, and some end up pregnant while serving their sentence, either by mistake or choice.
“It’s hard living here, especially for those women who get pregnant in prison,” says Rodriguez. “Some think with a baby the time will go faster, they can fill the emptiness by having a baby and they will be happier. But they underestimate how hard it is.”
DRUG OFFENCES RIFE
When asked why they’re inside, many inmates simply reply “law 30” - a euphemism for any type of drug offence, from the possession of small amounts of marijuana to street dealing and big-time cocaine trafficking.
Around half of all women prisoners in Colombia are serving time for drug-related crimes, of which nearly a quarter are aged between 18 and 25. Many get involved in drug trafficking to put food on the table and escape poverty.
Growing numbers of young women, including foreigners, have been caught at Bogota’s international airport, trying to smuggle heroin or cocaine abroad. Known as drug couriers, or mules, they strap the drugs to their bodies or swallow them in capsules.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a rights group, says the region’s harsh and unfair drug laws have put too many mothers and their children behind bars.
Many serve lengthy jail terms for minor drug offences, or spend months in custody awaiting trial, while the drug kingpins remain free to conduct their shady business.
Like many of her fellow inmates, what Rodriguez wants most when she leaves prison is to find work and spend more time with her family.
“I hope to do my son proud, and not depend on anyone to provide for him,” she says.
(Editing by Megan Rowling)