Raised behind bars
By Carolina Camps
I began this documentary project in Unit 33 of Los Hornos women’s prison in La Plata, near Buenos Aires, with a brief visit in 2004. In 2007 I felt the need to return for the type of images that required me to get closer to the inmates. Wanting to go deeper into their lives, I worked in the maternity wing where the inmates lived with their children until the age of four. There were 63 children inside at that time.
They are children who were mostly born in jail and whose perspective of the world was confined to within the prison walls. They never committed a crime, but they were child prisoners. When they reached the age of four, the saddest day for their inmate mothers, they were sent outside to live with their extended family, or in a state institution if they don’t have one.
The prison holds hundreds of sad stories, stories of abandonment and abuse. The inmates’ children shared their lives in the lockup, their poverty, and the violence. The mothers told me that their children were their companions in prison, and helped them forget where they were. I managed to spend enough time inside that I came to share their pain and their dreams. My eyes saw their world as if through their eyes.
Recently, five years on, I went back to look for those women and their children. I wanted to know what had been of their lives after those years. It wasn’t easy, but I did locate four of those I had come to know and photograph. It brought me great emotion to see how much their children had grown, and hear their stories about all that had happened to them since then. I managed to share considerable time with each of them, several days in most cases.
It took a lot of investigation but I did manage to find Julia under house arrest, Valeria back in prison for the fourth time, Sandra free on the outside, and Silvia still imprisoned for the same crime.
Julia Romero lives under house arrest after serving seven years of her 18-year sentence for homicide in which the victim was a minor. Her sentence was commuted to house arrest for the remaining 11 years.
She lives with her son Lautaro within the four walls of their house where she’s been since leaving the prison at 3 am one morning with her son in her arms, as all the other inmates yelled insults at her from the barred windows of their cells. They were jealous of the privilege she was granted, that of being able to go home, even if it was to continue under house arrest.
When she arrived home she found it empty; all her belongings had been stolen. She picked up a discarded mattress from a street corner and slept in an embrace with her son the first night with a mixture of emotions: loneliness, joy, fear. Today she runs a shop from inside her house, selling food and household items through the kitchen window. It’s her only contact with the outside world, and the only living she can earn.
She lives at times happy for having left prison, but sad to continue in confinement. She says that she was framed and is innocent, and was unjustly punished. Eighteen years of confinement, 18 years of indignation, 18 years that changed her life. She dreams of the day when she will be free, of making herself pretty, going to dance with her best friend, and staying out until sunrise.
I lived with Julia for several days in the confinement of her house. We became confidants. She told me her life story from within her, about her life before her arrest and inside jail. She told me what it was like to live in prison where she was labeled “child killer” as the most hated of inmates and the most punished.
Her house is just one block from where the minor died in 2005. Hers is a squalid existence in a slum where her 24-hour kiosk sells more at night, when the neighbors who wander the streets have no other shop to choose from.
I remember one night a group of kids came to buy something, stuck their heads in through the window, and looked at me. In the neighborhood everybody knows each other. They were interested in my camera, and in what I was doing there at that hour. They asked Julia if I was a tourist.
Julia simply answered that I was. “She’s a tourist and my friend,” she said, trying to protect me.
“No, no!” I tried to make them believe otherwise. I felt more a target if they thought I was a tourist, hanging out someplace where I shouldn’t be.
Then one boy, without taking his eyes off me, asked to enter and use the bathroom. Julia surprised me by saying yes. Quickly, Oscar, Julia’s boyfriend, pulled a large knife out of a drawer, looked at me, and laid it by my side. I felt so fragile there, and almost collapsed. The boy entered, looked at me as he continued past to the bathroom, and then left, luckily. Only then did I feel my soul returning to my body.
The following days were calmer, and I was able to get even closer to Julia. The photos were more intimate once I became part of the scene. If I didn’t appear or call for a few days, Julia would call me and ask why.
Then one day she said she wanted to make a request. In 2011 doctors detected a tumor in Julia’s uterus that required urgent surgery, but Julia never went back for treatment. She was afraid of the operation, and of what would happen with her son Lautaro if she died.
For her, I was the best option, so she asked me to be her son’s guardian in the event something happened to her. That was the moment when I understood the loneliness that Julia felt, and I realized how deeply I had become involved.
Valeria Cigara is a very different person now. She appeared as a strong and self-assured woman. This was her fourth prison term for robbery. She knew too well what life was like inside a jail.
I first met her daughter Milagros when she was still inside her mother’s womb, in Los Hornos prison in 2007. Very early one morning five years later, I went to meet up with Milagros at her aunt’s home in La Plata. Together with the aunt, grandmother and her grandmother’s boss who had offered to take us, we drove to Magdalena Prison to visit Valeria. Milagros and her aunt fell asleep as soon as we took off.
Everything was fine until we reached a police checkpoint en route. The man who drove got out and began to argue with the police. Suddenly an officer came to us to say we had to get out and he would take us to a bus stop, because they were going to impound the car since the driver’s license was expired. I couldn’t believe it. It occurred to me to offer to drive since I have a license. The officer accepted and made me sign a waiver to assume responsibility. In that way we managed to continue the trip.
The car’s owner sat next to me and broke out in sobs, telling me how he didn’t even realize his license was expired as his wife had passed away a short time before. We reached the prison and I just prayed that the family wouldn’t be stopped on the return trip, since I wouldn’t be with them.
Milagros entered the prison, which was very similar to the one she had lived in years ago. We passed through security control and there was her mother Valeria, waiting behind bars.
I noticed she was older and hardened. Valeria regrets having raised her daughter in jail. She remembers when she pointed out the stars to her through a small barred window in her cell. Milagros didn’t understand then why she couldn’t go out and play in the patio at night.
They spent this morning of visiting day together, but the hours flew by and the farewell was hard. They hugged and kissed, and Valeria promised, “Soon your Mommy will move to a place closer to home.”
“Yes Mommy,” Milagros answered, “to another jail.”
Sandra Valdez is free. Her life has changed completely, she lives in a different neighborhood, has a different boyfriend, and a new son.
My phone call to her left her silent for several moments. Some days before she had told her oldest son that she wanted to erase the memory of her days inside the lockup. She explained that the motive for her crime of drug trafficking was as a desperate effort for economic survival, but also a huge mistake.
When she left prison she had to move to another neighborhood, recover custody of her children and beg in the streets to provide food for them.
In the neighborhood where she now lives nobody knows she was a convict, not even her daughter Nicole who doesn’t retain those memories.
Sandra is harsh, rarely smiles, and has a pensive manner. She says that her boyfriend is a good man, the type she needs.
Her house is humble and often there is nothing to eat, but it’s full of running children and their laughter. She’s building a new life and cries over her past.
I don’t know if she’s happy, but she struggles so her children are.
Silvia Rodas is still serving the same sentence, but in a different jail. Her daughter, Anahi, left the prison when she turned four, but Silvia remains.
Silvia did stints in all the prisons of Buenos Aires province for bad conduct, and the distant one in Bahia Blanca is the last one willing to take her in. She’s proud of having five stars for conduct now, a great achievement for her.
Anahi visited her in all the different jails, but now with her mother so far away in Bahia Blanca she seldom travels. The bus fare is expensive, and the government doesn’t grant it often. I traveled together with her and her grandfather one Saturday in an overnight bus from Buenos Aires.
The next morning in the bus terminal bathrooms in Bahia Blanca, they ceremoniously changed their clothes and preened themselves, combed and perfumed. I didn’t bring a change of clothes, but I did my best to fix myself up as Anahi put on makeup and all her fantasy jewelry. Then the three of us went to the prison. I felt underdressed next to them.
On the other side of security control Silvia appeared lugging all sorts of things; bags, blankets, stereo equipment, and a yellow rose in her hand. Anahi ran to greet her in an intense and eternal hug.
They looked for a free table among the visitors, laid out the plates and glasses, with each table playing their own loud music. One played Cumbia while two feet away another played something else, at the same volume. All sounds mixed but nobody seemed to notice nor be bothered. Each table was a private world, so separate but so joined.
Silvia brought out more and more food as they chatted, embraced, laughed, danced and grew saddened. There was so much love between mother and daughter, and father-grandfather.
The time came to leave and there was another intense and eternal hug.
Anahi went with her grandfather to take the return bus, and Silvia went to her cell. I stayed at a nearby hotel to return to the prison the next day and learn more of Silvia’s life inside with Jessica, alias Guachin, a fellow inmate who has been her partner for the past five years. They live together as a couple in the same cell. I had heard many stories about Jessica.
As I waited in the guardhouse for Silvia to appear, suddenly we heard screams from some of the inmates. The six guards who were with me ran out and left me alone in the room. One returned in a panic, grabbed the phone and yelled, “Urgent, urgent, call an ambulance,” and then ran back out.
Immediately another ran in and into the same phone screamed, “Call the masculine security, urgent!” All I could imagine was that a riot had started. Then, just as suddenly, they rushed me back out towards the prison entrance, and escorted me to the warden’s office where several guards were waiting with looks of surprise and giggles as they explained what had happened.
Guachin had argued with Silvia because she was jealous about her spending the day with me. They began to fight and Silvia cut her with a knife. The warden ordered her placed in confinement for ten days. Amidst the panic they asked me to come back the next day when things were calmer, at an hour when Silvia could be allowed out for a moment.
With great uncertainty and a bit of fear, I returned the following day without knowing what I’d have to face. Nevertheless Silvia was very calm and we asked the guards permission to talk with Guachin. I explained to her my project and proposed that she keep us company too, since she is an important part of Silvia’s life. That was when they hugged, forgave each other, and asked permission from the guards to remain together for the day.
That was my last day of work on this project, five years after meeting all four inmates in Unit 33 of Los Hornos Prison. Not only they had change, but I had too. I am now a mother of an 18-month-old who helped me to see the story from a much deeper perspective, of one mother to another.
I now had more understanding of these four women, their fears, needs, and motives. I was able to identify with them, and wonder how my life would have been in their place, in their circumstances.
Maybe I would have been just like them.