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Home sweet home - in jail with father

Israel Mamani has been behind bars for a good part of his life - all four years of it.

It was more than a year ago when Israel's father, Justo Mamani, was sent to prison for drug trafficking. With no one else to care for him, Israel went to jail too.Fortunately for Israel, there are plenty of playmates among the cellmates. He is one of 38 children living with 1,100 prisoners in La Paz's rundown San Pedro Jail for men.

Little Israel, his straight black hair combed neatly into place, sucked on a pink ice cream stick in the cement-walled cell he shares with his father.

His dark eyes, above the high cheeks of Bolivia's Aymara Indians, watched his father's every move as the man cut pieces of leather for a purse. Mamani's makeshift leather business pays for the cost of feeding and sheltering Israel in the prison and for the school he attends outside.

"I'm happy to have my son with me, since I have no other family member to look after him," said Mamani, who is serving a three-year term.

Some 1,200 children live in Bolivian prisons with their fathers or mothers because they have no other place to go and the government lacks resources to provide alternatives.

It's a common solution in several poor Latin American countries. In Bolivia, where a suspect can wait years to be brought to trial, it is something of a tradition.

"It is a situation that dates back many years and that has become a norm in the main Bolivian jails," says Martha Valencia, a sociologist at the government's office in charge of the country's jail system.

The only jail in Bolivia where children are not allowed - and in fact the only one with the iron bars and security doors many people normally associate with prisons - is the Chonchocoro maximum-security prison near La Paz.

In some prisons, entire families accompany an inmate.

Many of the children share a bed with their jailed parent, while others have their own small cot set up in the cell. The level of comfort depends on how much money an inmate has or can make.

At the San Pedro Jail, prisoners with enough money live in suites with television sets, refrigerators and private bathrooms - right next door to poor inmates who must share rundown quarters and bathrooms with their children.

At the 170-inmate women's jail in La Paz, 86 children live with their mothers, the youngest at a day-care center run by social workers. Health workers look after them, providing regular check-ups.

The female inmates work in the jail laundry and bakery or sell items at a small jail market offering everything from food products and clothing to toys.

The government provides only the equivalent of 50 cents a day per inmate for food, so most inmates work in jail to cover their expenses.

In the highland city of Oruro, 180 miles south of La Paz, inmates must pay for their lodging and some inmates sleep in open courtyards if they cannot afford to pay for a room.

There have been cases of women known to work as prostitutes to provide themselves with a room in jail, a social worker said.

Experts say having children in jail with a parent has benefits and risks.

One positive aspect is keeping them in contact with their families and out of the gangs of street children, says psychologist Jose Luis Harb, a former head of the national corrections service.

In addition, "it helps the inmate in his rehabilitation - especially emotional and psychological," Harb said.

In the frigid, indifferent world of a penitentiary, their youngster's presence is comforting for a mother or father and can help to keep them from turning to drugs and alcohol, experts say.

There is concern about the effects of a negative environment on a child's development, as well as about the risks of putting children in close proximity to criminals including killers and rapists.

"To date, no cases affecting the safety of children have been reported because the inmates are organized to protect them," says Vilma Velasco, a children's rights activist.

For the most part, Israel and the other children at San Pedro Jail have lives similar to those outside of prison.

Five-year-old Jorgito Encinas, whose Peruvian father is jailed for drug trafficking, is considered one of the brightest of the children at San Pedro.

Every morning, he and other young children wait for a prison guard to unlock the front gate so they can attend classes at a local school.

In the afternoon, they file past a check point where a guard searches their school bags for alcohol, drugs or other prison contraband.

Older children, meanwhile, stay inside the prison during school hours to learn woodworking, handicrafts and other skills.

The youngsters often compete in soccer games in the prison yard, their fathers and other convicts cheering them on.