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Serving prison time as a family

In Bolivia, 'the worst family may be better than the best institution.'

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Morning sunlight falls on two young girls clapping out the universal cadence of patty-cake. And, like little girls everywhere, when they tire of it, they run off, giddy with laughter, passing a group of boys hunched over a game of marbles.

But this isn't a typical playground. These children are in prison.

Here in San Pedro Prison, 250 children have moved into cells with their fathers who are among 1,500 male inmates incarcerated for crimes ranging from money laundering to murder. In some cases entire families squeeze in – turning cement cells into closets stuffed with beds, clothes, toys, and utensils.

This is Bolivia's answer to preserving the family unit when poverty and crime would otherwise separate children from their parents.

In most cases, the arrangement provides a type of social security that the inmates' immediate families don't get from either their extended families or the state. Without the father working, women must find jobs, not act as caretakers. In other cases, mothers themselves are in jail or have abandoned the family altogether. When whole families move in it's often for moral support, to keep the family together, and because, in many instances, they have nowhere else to go.

But it raises an important question: Are children better off with their parents no matter what the environment is? Or is a sense of family secondary to a sense of safety?

For Filippo Clementi, who is the priest for the prison in La Paz, the answer is simple: A family belongs together – no matter where it is.

"The kids here humanize the prison," says Father Clementi. "The worst family is always better than the best institution."

***

In many ways, San Pedro is a city unto itself. On a recent day inside the turquoise walls, soup shops and convenience stores do a brisk business. Family laundry hangs over balconies. Men are busy working as carpenters or launderers. A sign outside a prime two-story cell advertises "cell for sale." And amid the community din of it all are clutches of young children playing games on the ground, the squall of an infant in a father's arms, and a teacher's instructions wafting through the window of a classroom for the prison's youngest children.

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