In Prison, No One Can Hear Your Heart Breaking: Incarcerated Mothers

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Sick as I get of the treacle that passes for heartwarming holiday stories this time of year, stories like this one make me see them in a new light. While we trim trees and open presents, 53 toddlers are growing up in a Mexico City prison with their incarcerated moms.

From the New York Times:

MEXICO CITY — Beyond the high concrete walls and menacing guard towers of the Santa Martha Acatitla prison, past the barbed wire, past the iron gates, past the armed guards in black commando garb, sits a nursery school with brightly painted walls, piles of toys and a jungle gym.

Fifty-three children under the age of 6 live inside the prison with their mothers, who are serving sentences for crimes from drug dealing to kidnapping to homicide. Mothers dressed in prison blue, many with tattoos, carry babies on their hips around the exercise yard. Others lead toddlers and kindergartners by the hand, play with them in the dust or bounce them on their knees on prison benches.

Karina Rendón, a 23-year-old serving time for drug dealing, said her 2-year-old daughter thought of the 144-square-foot cell she shared with two other mothers and their children as home. “She doesn’t know it is a prison,” she said, smiling sadly. “She thinks it’s her house.”

The kids ‘get’ to stay with their moms until they’re 6 at which point they go to relatives or whatever passes for foster care in Mexico (like ours is so great). We’re told, believably, that the kids have a calming presence on the other inmates and wander free from prison’s endemic violence. But, man, what a conundrum. What a world. Imagine what these mothers go through on the night before their child’s 6th birthday. And what the child goes through on the day after.

Maybe this is Mexico’s form of cruel and unusual punishment – ‘letting’ you keep the child you were carrying when arrested (of course, all the inmate Moms interviewed in the piece are innocent) so you can raise them in communal, drafty, illness-inducing cells surrounded by criminals, barbed wire and SWAT troops. How will these kids be affected later in life by growing up this way? Will they be able to blend in with the other children their moms’ had to leave behind?

Short answer: best decision among godawful choices, but man oh man. What a world.

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