At first glance it feels like any Latin American barrio filled with kids. It's a Saturday afternoon, and a dozen young children are sprawled out on a yard, painting a large canvass. Others run free through the one-square-block area that resembles a cramped town, with its food stands and kiosks. The tykes rattle off for me what they like best about their community: the mess hall, their friends, the food, the paint and, for many, just "living with mom."
They're living with mom, however, inside the Women's Correctional Facility in La Paz, Bolivia. There are about 250 prisoners here and also 100 kids. In fact, the country's lock-ups house more than 1,400 children behind electrified, fence-topped walls and below shotgun-guarded towers. Among the prisoner-mothers at the Women's Correctional Facility is Andrea Virginia Tapia, who has been behind bars for four years and is expected to be released next year. (She won't discuss her crime.) "Above all in this life, I am a mother," says Tapia, who is in her 30s and is the mother of seven kids, four of whom live in the prison with her. (The others live with her mother.) "They are best with me," she adds, as her three-year-old snuggles into her lap, "regardless of where that is." (See pictures from a women's prison in Iraq.)
That sentiment seems to be taking hold in many parts of Latin America, where thousands of children are growing up behind bars alongside their incarcerated mothers and fathers. That might sound like Dickensian tragedy; but in Bolivia it's a legal and fiercely defended practice. "We've seen that this is best for mother, or father, and child," says Jorge Lopez, Director of Bolivia's Penitentiary System. "It's important not to rip those bonds between parent and child." What's more, sadly, it may be the best alternative for the children themselves. In Bolivia, South America's poorest country, it's often financially impossible for family members on the outside to take on more mouths to feed. Orphanages aren't feasible, either: "Children live in worse conditions there than in the prisons and without their moms and dads," says Rene Estensorro, a psychologist at Semilla de Vida (Seed of Life), a non-governmental organization that works with imprisoned mothers and their children. Lopez agrees. Releasing the kids from the prisons, he says, "means [their] direct entryway onto the street."
Advocates argue that keeping the children inside prison may also have positive effects on their convict parents. "Having a child near helps the parent reform his or her actions and be more eager to rehabilitate and readapt to society," Lopez adds, noting that Bolivian legislation on this issue was based on studies reflecting that trend. (See pictures of how boxing helps prisoners in Thailand.)
The equally important question, of course, is what prison time does to the children. Estensorro acknowledges that "we see a lot of repression in the children." Kids inside the Women's Correctional Facility are punished for normal behavior like waking up in the middle of the night because they end up waking up everyone else inside the cramped sleeping quarters. School age kids leave the prison each day to attend regular schools but nonetheless suffer isolation from their peers. Another problem: the lack of 24-hour medical care inside the prison. Worse, kids must sometimes share mom's punishment for bad behavior, like solitary confinement. As a result, not every prisoner mom is happy about having her children with her. "I am paying my debt to society but that doesn't mean that my children should be paying the consequences of my actions too," says Casilda Calle, another prisoner in La Paz.
Still, housing children with incarcerated parents is becoming a more accepted practice across a region that shares many of Bolivia's social shortcomings. According to Lopez, Ecuador, Peru and Guatemala have systems similar to Bolivia's, which allows kids to live inside until the age of six (though even Lopez admits that kids sometimes stay years longer). Some women's prisons in Mexico hold toddlers; and in Argentina, there is a special facility for pregnant inmates and those with kids under the age of four.
So instead of attempting to remove the children, most efforts in Latin America today focus on improving in-prison services that benefit both parent and child, like constructing day care centers in or near the facilities and providing inmates with good-parenting workshops. The plight of these children, however, doesn't seem to be high on any relief organizations' list. Save the Children runs programs for the 200 children inside Bolivia's San Pedro men's prison, but that's the extent of its work in Latin America. CARE does not deal directly with this population, and various United Nations agencies did not respond to TIME's requests for comment. Nevertheless, after tear gas was used to put down a recent riot at a men's prison where 200 kids live, UNICEF issued this statement: "The precariousness of the infrastructure, health and welfare conditions of these penitentiary centers constitute a transgression of children's and adolescents' most fundamental rights."
Either way, even if the world outside Latin America might view the practice as a 21st-century version of a 19th-century evil, making children part of a prison's population has become an integral part of the region's corrections culture. "Kids learn to adapt," says Estensorro. "I believe they really are better off here."