Spanish Prison Offers Special Family Cells for Couples With Children

Victor Manuel Lozano spends his days like most 2-year-olds. He goes to nursery school, draws, rides a tricycle. The difference is, he does it in prison, living with mom, a convicted murderer, and dad, a drug trafficker.

Aranjuez Prison, Spanish officials say, is the only the one in the world with cells for families. The spacious units, dubbed "five-star cells," come with cribs, Disney characters on the walls and access to a prison playground.

The idea is for children to bond with their jailed parents while young enough not to fully grasp the reality of prison, and to teach parenting skills to inmates seeking rehabilitation. Some parents have two toddlers in the prison, and the total currently stands at 32.

Neither the prison psychologist nor the parents themselves think it is an ideal situation. But they say it beats the pain of separation.

"They take good care of us, and having my child and husband with me makes me very happy," said Carmen Garcia, 28, Victor Manuel's mother. "But this is not the best place to bring up a child. In some ways they are imprisoned too."

Garcia was jailed in 1998 for 10 years for murdering her boyfriend. Victor Lozano entered the jail the following year for an 11-year term. They met in 2003, were married behind bars and had Victor Manuel.

For now, prison is the only world the toddler knows. But in four months, when he turns 3, he will have to leave the prison and be looked after by relatives unless his parents can win a reduction of sentence for good behavior.

At dawn a guard wakes the family up for roll call. At 9 p.m., they are locked up again. Victor Manuel, who has spent the day playing with the other children of inmates, sometimes stands outside the cell crying because he does not want to go back behind the bars.

"For him it's the saddest part of the day," Garcia said.

The prison in this town 25 miles south of Madrid began operating family cells in 1998 and now has 36, although only 16 are currently occupied, most with Latin American immigrants who have no one to look after their children.

"It's tough to be in jail, but in this section you completely forget you are in a prison," said Ramona Montoya, 33, serving 11 years for drug trafficking.

Montoya and her husband, Manuel, also convicted of drug trafficking, asked a judge to put them in Aranjuez. They had read about the family cells on the Internet and wanted to raise their fourth child together. Their other three are living with Montoya's grandmother.

Montoya takes her 1-year-old daughter Marina to the prison's nursery school every morning while her husband works at the prison supermarket. She attends sewing classes.

"This is heaven compared with other cells where I have been," Montoya said while showing off Cell 113, the place she calls home.

It is 150 square feet, with a double bed, a crib full of toys, a small bathroom and windows facing outside the prison.

"It's all child-oriented. It's clean, they give you the best milk for the child, the doctor comes twice a week and the rooms are beautiful," Montoya said. "The only thing that reminds me I'm in jail is the roll call three times a day."

That comfort, says prison psychologist Maria Yela, encourages some women with a child about to turn 3 to try to get pregnant and stay in a family cell.

All candidates have to pass a two-month observation period to prove they are prepared to live together as couples and raise a child. Sex offenders are ruled out.

Many prisons around the world have nurseries and cells for children and mothers, but experts say they know of none with two-parent family cells.

In the U.S, "family cells would be very challenging" because prisons there are sexually segregated, said Denise Johnson of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents in Los Angeles.

Some experts think infants shouldn't be behind bars in any circumstances.

"It is not an advance. Prisons are the wrong place for children," said Frances Crook, director of the London-based Howard League for Penal Reform.

"There is a lot of evidence that show that they will be affected in the long term. They don't see animals, they don't see trees, they don't have the stimulation that is needed to grow as a healthy child," she said.

Spanish authorities say the family cells have been a success but acknowledge a child may suffer emotionally when separated from his or her parents. They have no plans to expand the program.

Yela, the psychologist, also has her doubts, but says the most important thing is for the family to be together.

"The bond has to be established between the child and their parents," she said.