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Serving prison time as a family

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Carlos Santos is the president of the prison's parents association. Here on preventive detention pending a trial on charges he declines to discuss, Mr. Santos holds his 1-year-old daughter, Fabiola, who lives with him while her mother works outside the prison all day.

Santos says that incarcerated parents make sure the prison is safe for their children. Some inmates have drug problems and use foul language, he says, but they are in the minority. "If anything happens [to the children], we call a meeting, and [the prisoner responsible is] immediately punished," he says, handing off his daughter to another inmate so he can pull up a chair to sit on. "It is more secure in here than out there."

Lt. Col. Edgar Tellez, who is in charge of the jail, disagrees. He says inmates aren't separated for crimes – so high-level offenders live among petty thieves. The children wander among all of them. "It is not a good environment for them," he says. "It pains me to see them here."

But by law, children are allowed to live with their parents in prison until age 6. In fact, they often stay much longer. No one tries to change the status quo, Colonel Tellez says, not even him. "It's not my job."

Indeed, Izamiro Hidalgo, serving 30 years for murder, says his family is with him because they would be homeless otherwise.

During the seven years Mr. Hidalgo has served so far, his family has lived with him in the same cell, #32, the entire time. In fact, three of his five kids were born here. For his family, living in San Pedro is a way of life – the only way his kids know.

"[My wife] isn't from here, and has no other family," he says.

On a recent lunch break in their dank, dark cell – hardly more than a 6-by-6 foot square with the amenities of home such as a rug, a TV, and a bedspread – the family spooned up a grim gruel of rice and lentils they got from the prison food service. It was a prosaic scene of kids alternately gobbling down or straying from their food, with Mom keeping them in line. "It's comfy in here," Hidalgo says. But how the youngsters feel about their home is unclear because prison authorities would not permit the Monitor to speak to any children here.

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