There are not words to describe this prison. It is the dirtiest, darkest, and most overcrowded place. The conditions of the ‘streets’ inside the prison were broken and grimy and always covered with trash and dirty water. Behind the ominous barbed wire and high concrete walls of the Santa Martha Acatitla prison in Mexico City, sits a cheerful nursery school with colorful walls, a maze of swings and slides and a playgroup of giggling toddlers. The inmates at the female penitentiary include women serving sentences for murder, drug dealing and kidnapping. There are also about 50 children, living inside the prison with their incarcerated mothers. Iron gates and menacing guard towers loom over sand piles and jungle gyms; outside the mini oasis of a daycare, life is that of a high-security penitentiary. Inside the prison, moms serving long sentences dread the day when their children are tossed out upon turning 6, and many struggle financially to care for them while they are there.
Here you have this seemingly unthinkable scenario and a story screaming to be told in way that disgusts, but also all these glimpses of beauty and gentleness popping up between harsh lines, as if maternity and human instinct know no bounds. Brute and hardened, tattoo-covered women smuggle in weapons and drugs and lash out at each other in the classroom, then melt into calm while in the presence of a child. In working on this piece, I strove to consciously capture these moments of softness, while still conveying the truths of the rough scene they were found in.
Many inmates were ‘homeless’ inside this prison. The mass of humanity milling around was intimidating at first. It was impossible to stay together as a group when moving around the prison. If one of us were to be intentionally separated from the group, we would not have immediately noticed. The free and convicted were walking around together.
Surrounded by various rooms, dormitories, workshops and prison cells. The majority of prisoners are housed in windowless, concrete dorms of about 50 x 20 feet. The prison authority provides no blankets, no beds, and no mattresses: nothing. When you sleep, you pull up a corner of the concrete floor. Over time and with the help of family, the prisoners have constructed their own little rooms made of a wood frames to which are attached blankets granting some semblance of privacy. The stalls are about 4 x 6 feet, some of which are furnished with beds, cooking equipment, shelving for clothing and one even had a TV although I have no idea how the electrical system was accessed.