Melissa is 18 months old: shy, chubby and well taken care of. She plays on a concrete slab during her mom’s morning Zumba class, giggling and mimicking the movements of the women dancing. After her afternoon nap, she watches “SpongeBob SquarePants” on a small TV set.
Melissa’s relationship with her mother is like any other child’s, except the Zumba class they attend together takes place in a recreation yard, and she watches TV in the prison cell she and her mother share with two other women.
Melissa’s mother, Barbara Sanchez, 27, was arrested six years ago for kidnapping. Barbara says she was unaware of what her husband did for a living, and that she never took part in the crime she was charged with, but she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“It’s the strength that God sent me to keep going in here,” says Sanchez of having her child with her. “When I found out I was pregnant, it made me very happy.”
Melissa won’t be able to live with her mother beyond the age of 4, but Sanchez says that things are easier with her around until then. “She will know that I am her mother,” she says.
Of the roughly 100 incarcerated women in state prison just outside of Chihuahua City, Mexico, about 10 percent are mothers who are allowed to have their young children in prison with them. It’s common in Mexico to allow incarcerated mothers to keep their children with them; a study in 2015 found there were 2,000 children being raised in prisons nationwide.
The majority of the women in the Chihuahua prison who spoke to us were incarcerated because they had boyfriends or husbands whose main business was working for cartels, whether at a lower level like dealing drugs, or a higher level like kidnapping and extortion.
The women also got wrapped up in that world — either seduced by the lifestyle and fast money or unknowing or unwilling to admit they were condoning a life of crime. For some, if they were present during the crime, or their house was searched and guns and drugs were found, everyone in the household was charged as an accessory at the very least, or guilty of the crime, if the prosecutor and police were looking to make a statement.
Isaura is 9 months old. She lives in a cell with her mother and two other inmates. “She’s the owner of this bunker,” says Fernanda, one of the cellmates, laughing. The grinning baby girl has brought much relief to this cell, where her mother and her adoptive aunties like to spend time playing with her.
“Imagine waking up and seeing a child smiling in this place,” says Deira, the other auntie. “She lights up the whole cell.”
“It’s been hard to have her here, but I am happy at the same time. She gives me motivation and makes the time in here go by faster,” says her mom, Saira Duran, who was three months pregnant when she was arrested for theft, and has four years left of her five-year sentence.
While the mothers enjoy having their children with them, others debate whether or not it’s a good thing for the kids.
“It is the best thing that can happen to you in here. You share with a child, and life becomes lighter. It becomes lighter for the other women, too. Everyone wants to support the babies,” says Brenda Armenta, who has been in jail for five years for theft, but is still awaiting sentencing.
But she adds, “This is not a place for babies. This is a place for us, for us to be thinking about what we did.”
The presence of the children seem to make the prison population kinder and gentler, bringing out the maternal instincts in many, one prison guard says. But still, she questions the long-lasting effects the prison stints will have on the children.
Brenda Armenta has her 2-month-old son, Justin, in prison with her, and she said she plans on telling him about his beginnings when he’s old enough to understand.
“I would not hide it away from him, because he is living here, but he is not a prisoner.
“It is me who has been sentenced. He can come in and out as he wishes. That is his privilege.”
Another mom, Araceli, 35, agrees. Her 3-month-old daughter, Jetzel, wears custom pink headbands that Araceli sews for her out of leftover fabric in the arts and crafts room.
Jetzel is constantly being picked up and doted on by the other prisoners and by prison guards, one of whom held her and sang to her one afternoon so Araceli could get some sewing work done.
“When she grows up, I will tell her where she was,” Araceli says. “I don’t know yet what the conversation will be like, but I am sure she will ask because on her birth certificate you can read where she was born.”
“So I will need to tell her, and I will have to find the way to talk to her about it.”
Melissa Lyttle’s reporting was made possible with the help of the International Women’s Media Foundation.