Prisons in Bolivia are very overcrowded – but not only with adults. The country’s laws state that children under six years old can stay in their parents’ cells. OESER, a Christian non-profit organisation, gives these children the life-changing opportunity to go to a nursery or school during the day.
I had no other option but to take my child with me to prison.
More than 2,000 Bolivian children currently live in prisons. The reasons for this are complex. Often when a parent is sent to prison, it is financially impossible for their family members to take on more mouths to feed. Parents may keep children with them in the jail because they hope it will lead to an earlier release. And in fact, a number of mental health specialists have stressed that children may be better off staying with their mothers, despite all the discomforts of a prison.
A hard place to call ‘home’
Inside the prison, the children are often victims of violence and sometimes even prostitution. They have few opportunities to see the world outside the walls. The nutrition they receive is often sadly lacking.
Edith* has spent three and a half years in prison with her young son. ‘I had no other option but to take my child with me,’ she says. ‘At first it was difficult because he was very small. He wondered when we were going home and he cried a lot. I was always afraid; I felt very alone.’
Edith worked long hours in the prison laundry and kitchen to try to afford a separate cell where she and her son could stay together. When she found out about OESER’s work, it was a great relief. ‘Thanks to OESER, my son can study and is in a safe place, in better conditions than here,’ she says.
A daily release
Each morning, OESER collects 22 children from the prison and takes them to a day nursery, kindergarten or school. The minibus that picks them up is the only ‘bridge’ for them to escape from captivity to freedom during the day.
OESER provides the children with education and a safe place to play with other children. They receive a nourishing breakfast and lunch, with plenty of vegetables and fruit. When they have health problems, OESER staff take them to the hospital, psychologist or dentist. They organise special events, such as trips to the playground or games inside the prison to strengthen the children’s relationship with their mothers. Project staff also share Christian values with the children.
In the beginning it was not easy to build up a trusting relationship with the mothers in prison. But OESER staff took time to visit them, explaining the project and sharing photos and videos of the daycare centre.
Over the years, we have learnt that genuine relationships based on trust are very important. Project staff have regular meetings to coordinate and communicate with both the mothers and prison officials. Staff members also make sure they show the mothers photos and short videos of their children performing at special events.
We see positive outcomes from working with the mothers, too. Often they are survivors of sexual abuse or other forms of physical violence. Before, their relationship with their children was characterised by shouts, insults and blows. But now, the mothers have changed their behaviour. Many of them have learnt to express their love for their children through hugs and kisses.
The mothers now allow our staff to advise and guide them, because we have shown them love and real interest in their problems. Some of them have become Christians, and the change in their lives has been much faster. Now, they do not just see their own problems, but find ways of supporting the other mothers.
It is a huge relief to see the first children who came through the project now living successful lives, working as teachers, craftspeople, professional athletes or bakers. I will never forget meeting a young man who was part of the programme some years ago. He told us joyfully that the care and education he and his mother received from OESER had helped them to recover their confidence and change their lives after they were released.
Edition 104 of Footsteps magazine explores the theme of prisons. It includes practical tips for getting involved in prison ministry and caring for ex-offenders.
*Name changed to protect identity.
You may also be interested to read these blogs about prisons: How drama is breaking the chains for boys from Brazil and Five steps to help prisoners make a fresh start on the outside