Mon, Mar 04, 2002 - Page 2 News List

Little inmates brighten monotony of prison life

BEHIND BARS At a women's prison in Lungtan, the youngest inmates are the children of prisoners who had nowhere else to send their toddlers for care


The women's prison in Lungtan, Taoyuan County, some 40km south of Taipei, accommodates not only more than 1,000 inmates but also a dozen toddlers.

The little inmates, none of whom are older than three, have no choice but to live in the prison as their mothers have been convicted of crimes and have no relatives willing to take care of them.

In the otherwise dull, spartan everyday lives behind bars, the little inmates are a rare source of joy and laughter. Their smiling faces and childish talk are like a refreshing hot springs to warm their mothers' cool hearts and enliven the tightly-guarded, grim prison.

A-feng, a 38-year-old woman who is serving a one-year prison term for drug abuse, had to take her two-year-old son, Hsueh-hsueh, with her when she entered the Taoyuan prison since her husband had been jailed for a similar conviction late last year.

"My husband only has a senile father and my mother is suffering from diabetes. Neither of them can look after Hsueh-hsueh. I had no choice but to take him with me," A-feng said. "I treasure this opportunity to get so close to my son."

In the past, A-feng recalled that she didn't have much time to share with her son because she had to wait tables in a restaurant to help support the family.

"Now that I'm in prison, I have more time to care for my son. Although it may sometimes affect my mandatory prison work, I truly appreciate the humane arrangement. For me, it's a godsend, not bad luck. Prison life enables me to calm down and think of my future. More important, my son has become more lively and cheerful, possibly because of increased opportunities to contact with people," a grateful A-feng said.

First words, first steps

Hsueh-hsueh has a good friend in the walled prison -- 18-month-old Hsiao-chiao, the daughter of 28-year-old inmate A-ping. Hsiao-chiao, who is just beginning to learn to walk and speak, entered prison when she was only two months old. Her pretty face has won her much love from not only other inmates but prison staff as well.

Hsiao-chiao is A-ping's youngest child. Like A-feng, A-ping was also a repeat drug offender. She said she got into drugs because of her husband. Her husband is now serving time in Taipei.

She said she is still thinking of what to do after serving out her time. "But one thing is certain -- I will never use drugs again. I have come to understand that if I am convicted again I will eventually lose custody of Hsiao-chiao."

A-yen's story is an even grimmer one.

She has been jailed three times for drug abuse since 1989. Her husband divorced her and was given custody of their two children. She got pregnant by another man shortly before she was arrested on drug charges. Her third child was born in the Taoyuan jail and is now two-and-half-years old. She has to stay in prison for another two years and three months. But according to Taiwan law, no prison can keep children older than three.

A-yen has begun to seek assistance from prison staff to find foster care for her young child. "As my parents are deeply disappointed with my behavior, I dare not seek their help."

Among the toddlers in the prison is a two-year-old girl who still cannot walk because of a brain injury which she sustained in an accidental fall because of the carelessness of her drug-addicted mother. A janitor at the woman's facility said the girl can now speak a few simple words, such as "mom" and "thank you."

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