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DOCUMENTARY/CHILDREN

Born behind bars
Children growing up in a prison in Mexico City. documentary by Caroline Bennett

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Inmate mother cradles six-month-old baby Carlos, whose name and identification number she has tattooed on her neck.

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Baby Carlos is left in his mother’s cell, in the care of her cellmate, while she spends the morning working in the prison’s food services section. Since his birth, Carlos has not been outside the prison walls.

A prisoner watches the children of other inmates play with their mothers in the Santa Martha prison yard. Her own young children live with their grandmother. As her babies were not born into the system, they are not permitted to live in the prison with their incarcerated mother. Independent World report ISSUE 6 21

A prisoner plays football with two-year-old Mario in the prison yard.

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Curious children look out through the bolted gates of the Santa Martha prison daycare centre. Often, with little family on the outside, many of the children in the prison know nothing beyond the prison walls until they are cast out upon reaching their sixth birthday.

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Children playing on the grounds and through prison hallways soften the atmosphere and sometimes make Santa Martha feel more like a school than a high security prison.

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An inmate reveals her pregnant belly while thinking about the future of her child, to be born inside the prison walls.

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Inside Cellblock H, where an inmate lives with her eighteen-month-old child and a cellmate.

ehind the ominous barbed wire and high concrete walls of the Santa Martha Acatitla prison in Mexico City (one of the roughest in the region), sits a cheerful nursery school with colourful walls, a maze of swings and slides, and a playgroup of giggling toddlers. Among the inmates of this women-only prison, are women serving sentences for murder, drug dealing, and kidnapping. There are also fifty or so children, living inside the prison with their incarcerated mothers. Across the exercise yard, blue-clad and tattooed mothers tap balloons to playful tots, argue over pacifiers, and bounce babies on their knees on prison benches. As many of the children born into the system have few or no family members outside the prison, there is often little option: stay in the jail with mom, or be cast out to an orphanage or the streets. While prison may seem an unacceptable place to raise a child, the Mexican government has decided to allow babies born in Santa Martha

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to stay with their mothers until they turn six, rather than be turned over to foster homes or unprepared relatives. I first entered Santa Martha nervous, and a bit frustrated that the government would allow and even encourage such a habitat for children. Hard-faced guards in black commando garb mauled hastily through my bag before letting me in, then watched my every move as we made our way through the prison’s dank echoing hallways where tough looking women eyed me up and down with curiosity, suspicion, or both. Upon reaching a small nursery school created within the prison walls where I would be allowed to photograph that first day, I was pleasantly surprised. While Santa Martha is undeniably a strict correctional facility and home to a rough crowd, it became quickly obvious that someone is trying hard to create a mini world within, for the children who call this place home. Mothers lined up outside, eagerly waiting to collect their babies, in what

seemed to be the highpoint of the day, laughing and gossiping as if they were at any other preschool in the free world. Inside, seemingly happy tykes bounced joyfully on balls, and cut animals out of colourful construction paper to be hung on the school walls. Still, iron gates and menacing guard towers loom over sand piles and jungle gyms – outside the mini oasis, life is that of a high security prison. A debate continues over whether growing up in prison is truly the best option, though for now the law stands, and Santa Martha authorities have taken steps to provide for some sense of a normal world for children growing up inside the prison. Meanwhile, mothers serving long sentences dread the day when their children would be tossed out upon turning six, and many struggle financially to care for them while they are inside.

Caroline Bennett is a photographer and multimedia journalist, www.carolinebennett.com

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