Photo story: Born behind bars


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BOSTON — Behind the ominous barbed wire fences and concrete walls of the Santa Martha Acatitla prison in Mexico City, you may be surprised to find a cheerful nursery school with colorful walls, a maze of swings and slides and a gaggle of giggling toddlers.

The inmates at the female penitentiary include women serving sentences for murder, drug dealing, and kidnapping. But there are also about 50 children, living inside the prison with their incarcerated mothers.

Photographer Caroline Bennett stepped inside the prison walls to see what life was like within Santa Martha's gates. Here is what she found:

The inmates at the Santa Martha Acatitla female penitentiary in Mexico D.F. include women serving sentences for murder, drug dealing and kidnapping. There are also about 50 children living inside the prison with their incarcerated mothers. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

Inside "Cellblock H" where an inmate lives with her 18-month-old child and cellmate. The Mexican government has decided it will allow babies born behind bars to stay with their mothers until age 6, rather than be turned over to foster homes or unprepared relatives. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

A territorial controversy heats up in a classroom while inmates await their teacher. When children are not present, it quickly becomes clear that Santa Martha is indeed a prison where inmates live in extremely close quarters and where tensions can escalate quickly. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

Tensions can quickly escalate among women living in such close quarters. The presence of resident children often subdues a scene before conflicts get out of hand. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

23-year-old Lucia is serving a 25-year sentence on kidnapping charges. Her son Mario, born into the system and now nearly 2, has almost been taken away by authorities three times for his mother's misbehavior and her cellmate's alcohol abuse. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

Mario, 2, born into the system, looks out of the prison walls to a world he does not yet know. Inside Santa Martha, moms serving long sentences dread the day when their child is tossed out upon turning 6. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

A group of inmates listen to instructions before a small birthday celebration for a child in the classroom. The women of Santa Martha have formed a very communal, sometimes cliquish way of life, offering one another protection and support. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

A tender moment between inmates. Homosexual relations are common, often between previously heterosexual women desperate for companionship within the prison walls. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

Carlos is left in his mother's cell in the care of cellmate while she works in the prison's food services. Since his birth, Carlos has not been outside the prison's walls. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

Children playing on the grounds and through the prison hallways soften the atmosphere and sometimes make Santa Martha feel more like a school than a penitentiary. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

Curious children looks out through the bolted gates of Santa Martha's daycare. Often with little  family on the outside, many of the children in the prison know nothing beyond the prison walls until they are cast out upon reaching their 6th birthday. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)

A prisoner watches the children of other inmates play with their mothers in the prison yard and longs for her own young children who live with their grandmother. As their babies were not born in the system, they are not permitted to live in the prison with their mother. (Caroline Bennett/GlobalPost)



About the photographer:

Caroline Bennett is a freelance photographer and multimedia journalist based in Latin America, where she has worked on a variety of assignments and projects throughout the region for local and international media, travel publications, NGOs, the United Nations and private clients. She has received several grants and awards to undertake projects on a variety of human themes around the globe, is a 2006 Eddie Adams alum, recently won second in the 2009 BOP Enterprise Picture Story category for her Born Behind Bars story, and was recognized in the 20th annual Women in Photojournalism juried exhibition. She currently resides on a mountainside in Quito, Ecuador, where she is pursuing a long-term project on the Ecuador/Colombia border.