Sun, Feb 11, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Aranjuez: Spain's `five-star' prison for families

The jail has 36 cell units for families, but the children can only stay until age three. After that they are taken away and put with relatives or with social services


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

Welcome to a prison Spanish officials say is the only the one in the world with cells for families. The spacious units dubbed "five-star cells" come replete with cribs and Disney characters on the walls. Outside there's even a prison playground for the kids.

The idea is for children to bond with their imprisoned parents while young enough not to fully grasp the reality of incarceration, and for inmates seeking rehabilitation to learn parenting skills.

No one thinks it is an ideal situation -- not the prison psychologist, nor the imprisoned parents themselves. But the arrangement 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," she said.

Garcia was sentenced to a minimum 10 years in prison for murdering her boyfriend. She met her husband Victor Lozano in prison. They got married behind bars and she gave birth to Victor Manuel.

For the toddler, prison is the only world he knows.

At dawn a guard wakes the family up for roll call. At night, after a day playing with other inmates' children in a yard, Victor Manuel is locked up again. Sometimes he 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 40km south of Madrid has 36 cell units for families, although now only 16 are occupied, most with Latin Americans. The children can only stay until age three. After that they are taken away and put with relatives or with social services, and their parents go back to regular cells.

"It's tough to be in jail, but in this section you completely forget you are in a prison," said Ramona Montoya, 33, a lively Gypsy woman who is serving an 11-year sentence for drug trafficking.

Montoya and her husband Manuel, who was also convicted of drug trafficking, asked a judge to be able to serve their time in Aranjuez. They had read about the family cells on the Internet and wanted to raise their fourth child together.

Montoya takes her one-year-old daughter Marina to nursery school every morning while her husband works at the prison's supermarket. She attends sewing classes. At 9pm, the family is locked up for the day.

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

It is a room of 14m2, its walls crowded with pictures of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and family photos. There is a double bed, a crib full of toys, a small bathroom and windows facing outside 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," she said.

That comfort, says prison psychologist Maria Yela, creates room for cheating. Many women with a child about to turn three try to get pregnant to be able to stay in the family cells, she said.

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