CHIHUAHUA CITY, Mexico ― Melissa is 18 months old, and she lives in the Aquiles Serdán female state prison in Chihuahua City, Mexico. The chubby toddler hides behind her mother’s legs when strangers address her, but she is at ease surrounded by the inmates.
When her mother, inmate Barbara Sánchez, attends her Zumba class in the morning, Melissa observes as the women dance. She stands around while the women dance. In the afternoon, after her nap, she watches Spongebob on a small television in the cell her mother shares with two other women.
“It’s the strength that God sent me to keep going while in prison,” said Sánchez. “When I found out I was pregnant, it made me very happy.”
Sánchez, 27, was charged with being an accomplice to kidnapping six years ago after police arrested her former husband on abduction-related charges. Sánchez says she was unaware of his real occupation and played no part in the crime, but she was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Her former husband is serving a 20-year sentence.
Mexico’s violence, which has been fuelled in part by the intensifying war on drugs in the last decade, is increasingly affecting women. A recent study from the Mexican feminist organization Equis found a 103.3 percent increase in women imprisoned for drug-related crimes between 2014 and 2016. While some women are willing collaborators with their partners, others are forced to take part in the crimes.
Twelve children, including Melissa, are housed with 167 women inmates in the Aquiles Serdán Social Rehabilitation Center. Children are allowed to stay with their mothers until they are three or four years old, depending on when the mother was arrested. Some women were pregnant when they were arrested, but others got pregnant while in custody; most of Mexico’s prisons allow conjugal visits.
Melissa is Sánchez’s fourth child, and the second born in prison. When she was arrested, she was six months pregnant. Her baby boy was born premature, and the prison authorities took him from her, arguing that he could not receive proper care within the prison. Her son now lives with her ex-husband’s family in Ciudad Juárez, some 230 miles away. He doesn’t know that Sánchez is his mother.
But things were different with Melissa, who has a different father. The authorities allowed Sánchez to keep her baby daughter because there were no health complications. Though Melissa will leave the prison before Sánchez serves her full sentence, she is happy that they have a relationship. “She will know that I am her mother,” she says.
Sánchez said she is grateful for the support she receives raising Melissa in prison, but she still worries her daughter will be taken away from her. She also hopes that growing up with her in prison will serve as a cautionary tale.
“I am in here because I was naive,” she says. “This place has taught me a lot about life, even if it’s in a hard way.”
In the United States, nine states operate prison nursery programs: California, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Washington and West Virginia. There, mothers and children are usually given separate units to live. In Mexico, however, children grow up within the main correctional facility, following their mothers’ regular routine. Rules about how long children can stay in prison vary from state to state. In Mexico City, for example, children can stay with their mothers until they are 6 years old.
There are between 300 and 600 children living in Mexico’s federal and state-run prisons, according to the Mexican nongovernmental organization Reinserta. These children are often “invisible,” the group says. Prison authorities do not account for them in their budgets, and often children do not have their own beds or food allocations. Mothers often rely on their families outside or on charities for food, clothes and toys.
Children in the Aquiles Serdán prison can see a pediatrician in the in-house clinic, and there are donated cribs, strollers, toys and baby food. When the children are a little older, like Melissa, they share a bed with their mothers.
Fernanda Moreno plays with fellow inmate Saira Durán’s 9-month-old daughter, Isaura. “Isaura is the owner of this bunker,” says Moreno.
“Imagine waking up and seeing this child smiling in this place,” says Deira Silva, another inmate. “She lights up the whole cell.”
The three women share a cell, and Moreno and Silva have become Isaura’s resident aunties.
“It’s been hard to have her here, but I am happy,” says Durán. “She gives me motivation and makes the time in here go by faster.”
Studies have recognized the positive psychological effects on mothers.
“It provides a huge emotional support,” said Macario Vela Corral, the on-site psychologist at the Aquiles Serdán prison. “It is important for them to have someone else to look after.”
There are not, however, clear studies on how living in a prison affects the children, and Vela Corral is concerned about how suitable the prison is for children.
“They are locked up, and children shouldn’t be locked up,” said Vela Corral. “They did not commit a crime.”
But prisons are part of life, says inmate Areli Estrada, 42, a former certified public accountant awaiting sentencing on a fraud conviction. She says she has learned a lot from being incarcerated. She shares a cell with her daughter, Maria Jose, who is one and half.
“No matter how bad this is, it gave me time to reflect, to look at my mistakes, to understand what I had done wrong,” says Estrada. “Of course the children are not guilty. They are little innocent creatures. But now what they need is to be with their mothers, independently from the place. If we are on a mountain or in a desert, the important thing is to be together.”
See more photos by photojournalist Melissa Lyttle of children living with their mothers at Aquiles Serdán prison below:
Irene Caselli and Melissa Lyttle were in Chihuahua thanks to a grant by the International Women’s Media Foundation.