In Bolivia, children often live with their fathers in prison
Special to The Herald
LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Delsy goes to school each morning, studies six hours
goes home to play with her friends -- in prison, where she lives among murderers,
rapists, drug dealers and thieves.
Delsy, 8, is one of hundreds of children who share their fathers' cells
in San Pedro
Prison in La Paz, the Bolivian capital. Prison officials plan to remove the children
from all Bolivian prisons by the end of the year, but the children and fathers don't
like the idea.
``I like it here,'' said Delsy, who has lived in the prison a year and
said she's had
no problems. ``I have friends, there are lots of fruits and my dad's here.''
``It's a custom that was permitted and no authority wanted to put a stop
to it,'' said
Penitentiary System Director Jose Orias. ``The previous administrations wanted to
ingratiate themselves to the prisoners rather than enforce the law.''
Guadalupe Botitano, a social worker at San Pedro Prison, said the number
children living in the facility rises to almost 400 at Christmas time.
``During vacation, they all come to visit an uncle or a brother,'' she said.
At the beginning of the year about 2,200 children lived in Bolivia's 17
according to Orias. But he said the government's Prisons Without Childhood
program has pushed that number under 1,000 and that the rest will leave by the
``[Inside] they are forming future criminals,'' he said. ``And one of the
important means of bringing drugs and alcohol into the prisons is through the entry
of children and women.''
The only exceptions will be children under six who live with their mothers
women's prisons. Because many children have no place to go -- both parents may
be imprisoned -- the prison administration is seeking orphanages to house them.
Orias says he expects resistance when the final expulsion arrives.
The children are one of many exceptional aspects of the 130-year-old San
Prison, a massive adobe building in the heart of La Paz, built for 250 inmates and
now home to 1,300. Prisoners are not assigned quarters. Instead, they rent or buy
through an unofficial market in cells -- which range from bare two-by-three-yard
rooms to multistory apartments. The poorest inmates sleep in hallways of the
Many inmates supplement the 50 cents a day the government spends on their
by working in the carpentry shop, as tour guides or by setting up stores or
restaurants. The prison is also a center of counterfeiting and is a source for cheap
drugs, which is apparently one reason for tourists' interest.
The children give San Pedro the appearance of an ordinary, if extremely
La Paz neighborhood. They run laughing through the alleys, play soccer and dive
into the small pool.
But appearances are deceiving, says social worker Botitano. During the
Year's celebration, a girl was raped and murdered by an inmate, she said, and
there are fights, drunkenness and killings. Botitano said the environment shapes
those growing up inside.
``They're children who have conflicts in their school years,'' she said.
of aggressiveness in these children.''
She worries about the children's perspective on reality.
``[The prison] is their house, their home,'' she said. ``There's a confrontation
society, a confusion about what's good and what's bad that might cause some of
them to return here [as criminals].''
However, at the Republic of Cuba Elementary School, about 50 yards from
prison, Principal Maria Bonilla said the students from the prison are well behaved.
But she said they are ashamed of their residence.
``They invent an address,'' she said. ``We know they come from [San Pedro],
if we identified them they'd feel different.''
Victor Hugo Carzori, 10, who has lived in San Pedro for a year, hides his
from his school friends. He said many ugly things happen in the prison.
``There are thieves, rapists, murderers,'' he said. ``In the mornings they're
drugs, at night sometimes they steal and the young men fight.''
Yet Victor Hugo said he likes San Pedro.
``We have everything here, free lunches, free bread,'' he said. ``We play
jump into the pool.''
Still, he doesn't want to return as an adult.
``Entering jail means losing years,'' he said. ``Being shut in is bad.''
Delsy's father, Teofilio Cassio, also agreed the prison is dangerous, ``but
I care for
[my daughters] well,'' he said.
Cassio, 38, is serving a three-year, two-month sentence on charges, which
denies, of having cocaine-making equipment on his farm in the tropics. During his
first year in prison his 6-month-old son died back home, so Cassio brought his
wife and three daughters, 10, 8 and 5, to live with him. Sharing his prison cell, he
said, is the only affordable way to have his family close by.
``In the city rents are very expensive,'' he explained.
The family pays about $4 per night in bribes to live in San Pedro, where
has a tiny restaurant and his wife operates a vegetable stand.
``We have enough to eat, but we can't save,'' he said.
Cassio doesn't want his children taken away.
``When I'm alone, I get sad,'' he said. ``But when I'm at my family's side,