Photographers' Blog

From inside a women’s prison

January 17, 2008

By Carolina Camps

“My stepfather raped me when I was a child. I remember that he always hit me hard on the head. My mom always said that I lied. Then I got engaged to be married and left home. He also hit me…I don’t know why but one day I killed him.”

This was the first story Maria de los Angeles told me in the psychiatric ward of Prison 33. She takes medicine five times a day, doesn’t know how many years she’s been in jail, or how many she has left.

She only knows that in this place she feels protected, that life outside wouldn’t treat her any better and that nobody is waiting for her release.

In December 2004, I started work on a photo essay at Prison 33 in La Plata, southeast of Buenos Aires. I chose a women’s jail because I believed it would be easier for me to get closer to the prisoners, listen to their stories and get to know them.

Prisoners Elen Garcia (L) and Marcela Ocampo enter their cell at the Unidad (Unit) 33 prison in Los Hornos near La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires Province in late October 2007. In this medium-security prison 273 female inmates, several of them pregnant, live with their 63 children who are allowed to remain with their mothers until they are four years old. REUTERS/Carolina Camps (ARGENTINA)

I was very curious to see what life was like in jail and what sort of women ended up in there.

I had a lot of prejudices when I began, but something changed. I stopped seeing and started observing, and I stopped being a free person and started to become one of them.

The bars, the prisoners, the feeling of being locked up, the punishment — I didn’t want that to show through my pictures.

The prison holds hundreds of sad stories, stories of abandonment, of mistreatment. I wanted to speak about these women just as I saw them, just as they showed themselves, just as they are.

A prisoner watches TV at Prison 33 Los Hornos near La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires Province in late October 2007. In this medium-security prison 273 female inmates, several of them pregnant, live with their 63 children who are allowed to remain with their mothers until they are four years old. REUTERS/Carolina Camps (ARGENTINA)

Last year, in the second phase of my project, I worked in the maternity wards where 63 children up to four years old live together with prisoners.

The children were born in prison and have never seen daylight outside the bars. They don’t know what an animal or a car is, or what exists outside this lockup. They are children that don’t smile.

Prisoner Silvia Rodas Paniagua and her daughter sit in a cell at Prison 33 Los Hornos near La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires Province in late October 2007. In this medium-security prison 273 female inmates, several of them pregnant, live with their 63 children who are allowed to remain with their mothers until they are four years old. REUTERS/Carolina Camps (ARGENTINA)

I was saddened to hear that the first word they learn is “celadora” (prison guard) and to see how their mothers used their teeth to cut food for them for the lack of a knife.

For those whose mothers are in prison for years, the arrival of a fourth birthday is the most painful day because the children must leave to live with their family outside, if they have one, or in a state home if they do not.

The vast majority jailed at Prison 33 are there pending trial; they haven’t been convicted of a crime. In Buenos Aires’ provincial prisons, about 12 percent of 780 female prisoners are pregnant or already living with their children behind bars.

A woman prisoner holds her baby at Prison 33 Los Hornos near La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires Province in late October 2007. In this medium-security prison 273 female inmates, several of them pregnant, live with their 63 children who are allowed to remain with their mothers until they are four years old. REUTERS/Carolina Camps (ARGENTINA)

The average jail term for these mothers is one year and eight months, and more than 70 percent of them are charged with robbery-related crimes or drug possession and peddling, according to a report by a provincial human rights commission.

I wanted to show with images how these women feel inside prison: the loneliness, the lesbianism as a way to feel loved, the self-flagellation and the suicide attempts, with wounds on their arms gaping like open mouths demanding attention.

A pregnant prisoner shows her tattoo while sitting in her cell at Prison 33 Los Hornos near La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires Province in late October 2007. In this medium-security prison 273 female inmates, several of them pregnant, live with their 63 children who are allowed to remain with their mothers until they are four years old. REUTERS/Carolina Camps (ARGENTINA)

I wanted to show the drugs they use to escape, their experience of motherhood, their limited lives, the lack of freedom.

I spent long hours inside the prison. It wasn’t easy getting close to them, but with patience and a lot of time I earned their trust.

That was how I could capture the feelings that circulate around the cells and hallways. It was how I could stop being an outsider and become a part of the group, documenting the daily lives and intimate moments of the inmates.

Bringing these images to light was my way of freeing them.

(Carolina’s slideshow can be viewed here , as well as the audio versions in English or Spanish)

Comments
14 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

this is shocking, especially the images with the children

the animals in a zoo have a better life, that is sure

 

A very moving account Carolina.

I can’t even begin to think of what life must be like for both the prisoners and their children. It is indeed sad but I guess that’s the price they have to pay huh?

And I do realise that that probably sounds judgmental but what I do know is that it must be one of the hardest ways to live.

To live but not to be free, to desire love, tenderness and affection, and not recieve it. Life must be tough for these inmates, just like it is for millions of others.

But hope is all I can pray for them. Hope. With hope, faith stays alive. No matter how close it comes to burning out, it’s almost always certain that it will weather the storms of life threatening to tare the heart assunder.

Perhaps I’m talking from the persective of one who enjoys the freedom and liberty life has to offer. Who knows….

Then there are those of us in the so-called ‘free world’ who are unable to experience the essence of true freedom. For us I pray that we shall grow to experience, appreciate and embrace the spirit of true freedom; both of the heart and mind,and not just to be free to go as we please.

Posted by Diana Ngila | Report as abusive
 

While I do not believe in keeping babies/children at the prison I think that children getting to know their mothers, I think that part of the dual confinement is good. Maybe one day the mothers will be able to find a job and support themselves and raise the child to be responsible citizens WITHOUT that criminal part of their lives and go on to be good citizens.

Posted by ddd | Report as abusive
 

What crimes did the children commit to deserve a sentence along with the parents? They played no part in being able to choose whom they are born to. It is despicable that such kind of breach of basic human rights are allowed to happen in the modern world.

 

MY GOD!! This is in_humane, unbelievable. And not even Convicted you say

Posted by charlene haddock | Report as abusive
 

It’s good to know their prison system is breeding a new crop of criminals even as their parents are locked up. These people shouldn’t be allowed to bring a child into the world, they can barely handle their own lives. Disgusting.

Posted by Charlie | Report as abusive
 

This photographer shows the wisdom and fortitude that few people have in this socially ignorant society that we live in. It is no surprise that the “Charlie’s” of the world are in decision making positions for our justice system. The fact that these women are in prison with no convictions is the wisdom of these pompous idiots. Quite frankly, I was very impressed with the beautiful shots of mothers caring for their young. Just goes to prove, even people that are treated as animals, do not need to treat others the same way.

Posted by Grandma Brenan | Report as abusive
 

its so disgusting… i cant believe that there are person like that in a stupid,horrible jail… i really wonder why…….

 

These women have clearly been hurt far worse than any of us leaving comments. I cannot imagine having been abused or molested or criticized all my life.

What can be done to help these women and their children? What can be done to help them break the cycle?

Posted by Marisol | Report as abusive
 

That’s really sad.
I’m writing a novel based on a girl and her experience in a prison!
I might learn alot by just writing it, experiencing is wot i can’t even imagine doing.
Children are bieng treated unfairly!

Posted by Malaika | Report as abusive
 

I once was one of those women. Lost and confused and had no hope for change, but something inside changed as I walk around those four walls. I have been out for 4yrs, and the memory still lives in my head,lonilessness, sadness, and fear. In and out of jails and prison for over 20 yrs, because of my addiction. I don’t every want to go back. There is hope for those women if they want change, and if they are there for life, they still have a choose to be free…As long as they still have dreams there comes freedom.

Posted by Charmaine | Report as abusive
 

:omg: This is surprising to me ,even though im am a troubled teen I read these thing too see what life is like in prison.

Posted by De'Arshar | Report as abusive
 

Im doing my proyect for my LAJ class major and I decided to focus on Women In Prison but It is too hard to see little kids there. I just came away with the conviction that persons (Women) who has been abused shouldn’t be punished twice because many of them ended up in prison because they were abused horrendously.

En muchas ocasiones la justicia es doblemente ciega y mas si se es pobre.

Posted by Bela | Report as abusive
 

I was abused when I was a child and to blame some of the women in there for doing what they done is so wrong, what if you where raped every night for years and then beaten bye every man you had every been with, what kind of hate would you have. I understand we all deal with things in a different way but some times it becomes to much. I have a loving husband now thank god but I have been there.

Posted by johnnied1979 | Report as abusive
 

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