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WITNESS: Gaining the trust of mothers in an Argentine prison
January 17, 2008 / 4:12 AM / 10 years ago

WITNESS: Gaining the trust of mothers in an Argentine prison

Carolina Camps, 34, is a freelance photographer based in Argentina who develops her own documentary projects, often focused on people at society’s margins. She has worked with Reuters and leading Argentine newspapers such as Clarin and La Nacion. In the following story she relates her experiences of getting close enough to women prisoners in La Plata, Argentina, to portray their lives through her images.

<p>Photographer Carolina Camps (front R) poses with prisoners in Unidad 33 prison in Los Hornos late October 2007. REUTERS/Handout</p>

By Carolina Camps

LA PLATA, Argentina (Reuters) - “My stepfather raped me when I was a child. I remember that he always hit me hard on the head. My mom always said that I lied. Then I got engaged to be married and left home. He also hit me...I don’t know why but one day I killed him.”

This was the first story Maria de los Angeles told me in the psychiatric ward of Prison 33. She takes medicine five times a day, doesn’t know how many years she’s been in jail, or how many she has left.

She only knows that in this place she feels protected, that life outside wouldn’t treat her any better and that nobody is waiting for her release.

In December 2004, I started work on a photo essay at Prison 33 in La Plata, southeast of Buenos Aires. I chose a women’s jail because I believed it would be easier for me to get closer to the prisoners, listen to their stories and get to know them.

I was very curious to see what life was like in jail and what sort of women ended up in there.

I had a lot of prejudices when I began, but something changed. I stopped seeing and started observing, and I stopped being a free person and started to become one of them.

The bars, the prisoners, the feeling of being locked up, the punishment -- I didn’t want that to show through my pictures.

The prison holds hundreds of sad stories, stories of abandonment, of mistreatment. I wanted to speak about these women just as I saw them, just as they showed themselves, just as they are.


<p>Canvas shoes are placed outisde a cell window at the Unidad (Unit) 33 prison in Los Hornos near La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires Province, Argentina, late October 2007. In this medium-security prison 273 female inmates, several of them pregnant, live with their 63 children who are allowed to remain with their mothers until they are four years old. REUTERS/Carolina Camps</p>

Last year, in the second phase of my project, I worked in the maternity wards where 63 children up to four years old live together with prisoners.

The children were born in prison and have never seen daylight outside the bars. They don’t know what an animal or a car is, or what exists outside this lockup. They are children that don’t smile.

I was saddened to hear that the first word they learn is “celadora” (prison guard) and to see how their mothers used their teeth to cut food for them for the lack of a knife.

For those whose mothers are in prison for years, the arrival of a fourth birthday is the most painful day because the children must leave to live with their family outside, if they have one, or in a state home if they do not.

Slideshow (24 Images)

The vast majority jailed at Prison 33 are there pending trial; they haven’t been convicted of a crime. In Buenos Aires’ provincial prisons, about 12 percent of 780 female prisoners are pregnant or already living with their children behind bars.

The average jail term for these mothers is one year and eight months, and more than 70 percent of them are charged with robbery-related crimes or drug possession and peddling, according to a report by a provincial human rights commission.

I wanted to show with images how these women feel inside prison: the loneliness, the lesbianism as a way to feel loved, the self-flagellation and the suicide attempts, with wounds on their arms gaping like open mouths demanding attention.

I wanted to show the drugs they use to escape, their experience of motherhood, their limited lives, the lack of freedom.

I spent long hours inside the prison. It wasn’t easy getting close to them, but with patience and a lot of time I earned their trust.

That was how I could capture the feelings that circulate around the cells and hallways. It was how I could stop being an outsider and become a part of the group, documenting the daily lives and intimate moments of the inmates.

Bringing these images to light was my way of freeing them.

(Writing by Rickey Rogers; Editing by Hilary Burke and Sean Maguire)

To read more Reuters Witness stories click here here

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