Civil Society, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Raising Children Behind Bars

Marcela Valente

LA PLATA, Argentina, Jun 12 2008 (IPS) - Soledad Acevedo was an 18-year-old mother of two eking out a living by means of menial casual work in 2002 when she was sent to prison in the Argentina province of Buenos Aires, accused of armed robbery and attempted homicide. Now she is 24, and is excited as she meets with IPS in her cell.

Cell door in Unit 33 of Los Hornos prison. Credit: Marcela Valente/IPS

Cell door in Unit 33 of Los Hornos prison. Credit: Marcela Valente/IPS

She is happy because she has just been told that she is about to be placed under house arrest. It’s not exactly freedom, but until her appeal goes through, she will live at her sister’s house, with her nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son, who she was separated from when she was arrested, and with the daughter who has lived with her in prison since her birth in 2006.

Acevedo is one of the 270 women in Unit 33 of the medium-security Los Hornos prison in La Plata, the capital of the eastern province of Buenos Aires, where women make up three percent of the total prison population.

But she forms part of an even smaller group: 76 mothers who have their small children, up to the age of four, living with them in their cells.

There are also around 20 pregnant women prisoners, according to the Committee Against Torture of the Provincial Commission for Memory, a state institution that monitors conditions for prisoners in Argentina’s most populous province.

The Committee is working with non-governmental human rights groups to get alternative sentencing for expectant mothers and women with small children. And little by little, they are meeting with success.


But without a law to back up their demand, they say, judges are reluctant to hand down alternative sentences.

"In the last few months, there were 21 court hearings, and house arrest was obtained for 13 young women," says Laurana Malacalza, the Committee representative who is accompanying this journalist on a tour of the cells of section 10 of the Los Hornos prison, where mothers with small children are housed.

Unlike most of the male prisoners, the female inmates receive few visitors. And in many cases, because of the distance between their homes and the closest available women’s prison, they actually end up losing their ties with their families and their partners.

It was heartbreaking to leave the children with her sister, says Acevedo, recalling the moment of her arrest. "I didn't want to bring them here to live. My little girl was starting preschool and my little boy was just starting to walk."

Her third child does live with her in Los Hornos. Now, when the two older children visit, they suffer because only the youngest stays behind with their mother when they leave, she says.

"The pregnancy here was horrible, they said it was high risk. I don't know why. They gave me something so I wouldn't lose the baby," she says.

Her daughter was born by c-section in a nearby hospital, and five days later both of them were back in Acevedo’s cell. "My world collapsed. I cried more than she did," she says, remembering the post-partum period.

Acevedo was handed a 12 and a half year sentence, but her lawyers have filed an appeal. In the meantime, she will live in her sister’s home with her three children – all of them together again, although she won’t be able to leave the house or work.

HEADING HOME

The interview with IPS is suddenly interrupted by shouting. Acevedo has been called out of her cell. She can go home.

She leaves the cell with just the clothes on her back. She runs down the corridor, laughing and crying at the same time, giving kisses and hugs to inmates who come to say good-bye, getting her special hair-do all messed up in the process. In a kind of farewell ritual, her block-mates slam the heavy iron doors of their cells over and over again, to make sure the entire prison knows that one in their midst is getting out.

The children watch with surprised looks on their faces, but they are not frightened. They look like they are used to the noise. The sound of banging and kicking against cell doors continues after Acevedo is gone. With each blow, the women are letting off steam, expressing joy, anger, frustration and sadness, says one of the older inmates.

Each prisoner put under house arrest slightly eases the overcrowding in the prisons. But the real achievement, say activists, would be a blanket law making all mothers with small children eligible for that benefit, as are the terminally ill and people over 70 today. It would also be one way to address the severe overcrowding problem while targeting a vulnerable group.

A draft law to that effect has made it through one house of Congress, and similar legislation has been introduced in the provincial legislature.

Paula Litvachky of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a human rights group that is also pressing for a new law, said that instead of protecting the mother-child bond by keeping children behind bars with their mothers, the state should allow the mothers to live outside of prison.

"The mother, or the father when the mother isn't around, could be held under house arrest by means of an electronic bracelet, and the children could lead normal lives, at least while they’re young," she told IPS. "That is much better than building prisons equipped with child care centres."

Meanwhile, human rights groups back up defence lawyers every time they request house arrest for their female clients. A full 96 percent of the mothers in the Los Hornos prison are still awaiting final sentencing, and a majority were arrested for crimes against property (40 percent) or possession or sale of drugs (31 percent).

The prison wing toured by IPS has two floors of cells. Each cell holds two beds. Most of the mothers share their beds with their small children. The rest of the furnishings depend on what help the inmates receive. Some have a table, a TV set or radio-cassette player, and shelves to hold the children’s toys and clothes. The cells are small and filled to bursting.

The state does not provide a special budget for the support, education and health care of children living in jail with their mothers. The services provided depend on the decision made by each prison director, on the funds available to them, and on donations. That means many of the mothers depend on what they get from their families – those who actually receive visitors, that is.

The mothers do receive diapers and milk for their children. But often there is no medicine available, and the paediatrician is only available for short periods. Until a few months ago there were no otoscopes, nebulisers or scales in the unit, but they were supplied after a six-month-old baby died of bronchitis in 2007.

The mothers receive eight pesos (just over two dollars) a month in spending money. According to a survey that they themselves carried out in late 2006, during a protest over conditions in the prison, half of them said they had stopped receiving the 30 dollar-a-month subsidy for unemployed heads of household to which they were entitled.

The common area that the cells open out on is furnished with a table and chairs, a stove and a refrigerator. The TV set is on, with the volume turned down. The air smells of stale cigarette smoke and garbage that hasn’t been removed for hours. Flies buzz around the remains of a meal in a pan and the top of the dish that holds the cake made "for visitors."

The common area has a door that leads out to a fenced-in yard with a grassy area, an empty plastic kiddie pool and donated toys, some of which are broken. The yard is crisscrossed by clotheslines full of laundry flapping in the wind.

Some of the children attend a nearby day care centre, initially created for the children of the prison guards, whenever a spot opens up. The older ones go to a local preschool. They are taken back and forth every day, but their mothers never meet the teachers.

WHEN SEPARATION LOOMS

Under Argentine law, children can stay in prison with their mothers until they turn four. After that, they have to go and live with relatives or in state homes for children.

The Committee Against Torture complains that the latter option is "favoured in practice by many judicial system employees."

According to the survey conducted by the female inmates during the 2006 protest, 27 women said they had given their children up for adoption or allowed them to be placed in foster homes.

"What we are trying to preserve is the mother-child bond, because if we emphasise protection of these children, the judges could take them away from their mothers," says Malacalza.

One of the young women in the unit tells IPS that she has four children who are living with her parents, and a fifth child, a two-year-old daughter who is HIV-positive, living in jail with her. The little girl was born in a police station, says the mother while she waits for her to come back from day care.

"When she was born, they took her away from me," she says. "She was in Casa Cuna (a children’s hospital). I asked and asked for her, but no one listened to me. When she was 11 months old, they brought her, and she got used to it here right away."

"I love kids," she says with a smile. She only has one tooth left.

She doesn’t want to talk about the reason she is in prison.

Another young woman in the unit approaches the Committee Against Torture representative because she would like to be transferred to house arrest, but admits that she has nowhere to live. She is carrying her two-year-old son, who was born in prison and has been hospitalised 11 times because of respiratory problems.

The only period during which her son was well was when a judge had her transferred to a battered women’s shelter in La Plata because of the little boy’s health problems, she says.

The boy’s health improved greatly there, but she suffered from a great deal of anxiety and ended up slitting her wrists. After her unsuccessful suicide attempt, she was sent back to prison.

Now, with the southern hemisphere winter approaching, she is afraid that her son will get sick again, and she wants to try living outside of prison again.

But it won’t be easy to find a place for her, Malacalza says after hearing her out, especially since the young woman has lost touch with her family.

The 21-year-old inmate says she was studying medicine in La Plata. But one night, she and a group of other students did drugs and "went out to steal," as if they were setting out on an adventure. She says she can’t ask to be placed under house arrest in her parents’ home because she no longer has any contact with them. She has not seen them since her arrest and does not want to call them.

Another inmate, Gladys, says she is happy because she will be released in just two weeks. As she meets with IPS in her cell, she talks in a low voice while giving the bottle to her two-year-old son. She is 38 and has been behind bars for 13 years, in five different prisons in Buenos Aires province.

Gladys has five children. She hasn’t seen her three older daughters for seven years, although they call her once in a while. They live with their grandmother in General Villegas, a town 500 km northwest of La Plata.

She had them all before she was arrested, she says.

"It’s better for them not to come, because visitors are submitted to unpleasant searches, and I don't want them to go through that," says Gladys, who does not give her last name.

In 2001, when she was in prison in Azul, a town in the southwestern part of Buenos Aires province, Gladys got pregnant while involved in a relationship with a male inmate. The seven-year-old boy now lives with his paternal grandparents in Bahía Blanca, 640 km from La Plata, and she sees him twice a year. Her youngest, the little boy in her arms, is the only one with her in prison.

In such cases, house arrest would allow all of the siblings to be reunited with their mother.

She is in prison for homicide. "I killed my husband (the girls’ stepfather) because he beat my daughters, and no one touches my kids," she says. "I wanted to separate, but he refused. So I put poison in his food."

She was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but the final sentence was only handed down two months ago, after she had already spent 13 years in prison. And since time served in remand counts double, she has spent more years in prison than she owes. In two weeks she will be set free.

"I went through a lot here," she says, her eyes brimming with tears. Although she has learned some skills, she has also witnessed horrible scenes, like women being raped by other female inmates, and brutal fights.

"Here, if someone comes and says ‘give me your tennis shoes’ or ‘your radio cassette player’, you have to defend your things. And to do that, you have to fight with your hands or pick up a ‘fierro’," says Gladys. "That means fighting with a knife or anything else that’s sharp."

But never in front of the kids, she hastens to add. "The fights are arranged in the showers."

At the end of the tour, another inmate, holding an eight-month-old baby, asks this journalist to take a photo of her with her son, and they both smile for the camera. The girl has cancer but has refused treatment. She says it would be senseless. When her son turns four, they will have to be separated – and she does not want to live any longer than that.

 
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