MCC’s Global Family education program supports a Bolivian church effort to provide meals and school support.
The courtyard of the women’s prison in Cochabamba, Bolivia, is a riot of colour and sound. The central, open-air space could be mistaken for an outdoor restaurant. A collection of red and white plastic tables is topped with bright yellow umbrellas, where couples sit to eat food purchased from one of the stalls that surround the square.
But because this is prison, once the couples are done eating they won’t go home together. Husbands will leave their wives behind the locked door, along with their children.
MCC photo by Nina Linton
In Bolivia, when parents go to prison, children sometimes live there with them — often because no relatives can take them in or parents don’t feel good about other options such
as children’s homes. Officially, only children younger than six are allowed to live in the prisons; in practice, though, older children can end up living there as well.
This prison became home for Jhosselin Dorado Ardaya when she was 10 years old and her mother was convicted of drug trafficking, a common charge in this region of Bolivia
where lack of job opportunities and education lead people into the easy money of the drug trade.
She remembers learning to share a small cell with her mother and two of her siblings.
“At first it was really difficult and I wasn’t used to it at all,” she says. “We slept in a really tiny room on the floor with the four of us all together.” This was actually a step up. Bolivian prisons don’t have assigned rooms. Prisoners pay bribes to guards to get a cell and avoid sleeping in the hall.
And, Dorado Ardaya recalls, the family struggled at first with having enough to eat. In this system, food allowances are enough only for the adult who is incarcerated; prisoners are expected to work within the prison or have family members send them money to provide
for the children with them.
But things changed when her mother heard about a program at Casa de la Amistad that provides meals and school support to children living in the prisons. Every morning, staff members pick up children and bring them to the centre, where they eat three meals a day,
are escorted to school and get homework help or counselling if needed.
MCC photo by Nina Linton
Casa de la Amistad, run by the social development wing of the Baptist church in Bolivia (Organización Bautista de Desarrollo Social or OBADES), receives support from MCC’s Global Family education program.
There are 120 children in the program; all of them live with a parent in one of the four prisons in Cochabamba. While the government gives the centre some money for the food, it doesn’t
receive funding for school supplies or to pay the teachers and psychologist.
Carla Ninet Bottani Peña has been the psychologist at Casa de la Amistad for 15 years, helping to assess and work with the young people in the program who need extra assistance. Life in prison can be stressful for children. They see more aggression than normal, and they live with limited resources and freedom; some face abuse or neglect. “We work also with the parents to help them focus on the well-being of the child,” she says.
MCC photo by Nina Linton
Prison life also can teach childrento get involved in drug trafficking at a young age. Many of the inmates are convicted of drug charges and are still connected to the trade. And often families don’t have the money to pay for further education to provide career options. “I’ve seen two adolescents doing really well in high school but for lack of economic resources they have to work in drugs with their mother,” says Bottani Peña.
That’s why Casa de la Amistad also decided to start a work training program for students who had been part of the program but have completed high school. The classes can lead to employment opportunities that students might not otherwise be able to access. With funding from MCC, OBADES is offering scholarships for 20 students, 10 of them from Casa de la Amistad, to complete training programs in fields including graphic design, mechanics and carpentry.
Dorado Ardaya, now 18, received one of the scholarships and started taking
beauty classes in August of 2013.
She’s excited to learn the new skills and has been practicing on her older sister and staff at Casa de la Amistad. “I like to work with my hands,” she says. “I like to see other people look nice and help them look nice.”
Because there is a high demand in this field, the training will help her contribute more income to her family. “I have three siblings and my mom always struggled to provide for us, and so this was the extra support for me to be able to study,” Dorado Ardaya says.
Photo by Nina Linton
And, Bottani Peña notes, that chance to study new skills is what’s needed for youth like Dorado Ardaya to step outside the drug trade. “It’s important to break that cycle of the family, that they realize and see other options for themselves,” says Bottani Peña, “another type of life for themselves.”
Emily Loewen is a staff writer for MCC Canada. Nina Linton is a photographer from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.