For Children of Inmates, Home Was A Bolivian Prison

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Melanie Crowder An Uninterrupted View of the Sky Bolivia
Author Melanie Crowder taught music to children in Bolivia in the late 1990s.

In many countries around the world inmates' children are permitted to live in prison if their parents are incarcerated. Colorado author Melanie Crowder tells CPR's Andrea Dukakis about her new novel for young adults, which paints a haunting picture of what life can be like for those kids. "An Uninterrupted View of the Sky" is about two school-age children who live with their father in a Bolivian prison in the late 1990s.

Read an excerpt:

Pilar and I sit on the stone steps in the prison courtyard with Mamá and Papá, staring at nothing and everything. Something is up with my parents. I don’t think she’s raised her eyes above his chin all day.

And she doesn’t touch anything. Mamá perches on the edge of the step, her arms crossed and her knees pressed together, like if she keeps to herself, this place can’t get to her.

We don’t talk. What more do we have to say to one another? So I watch the sun move behind the clouds. The high walls and fluttering laundry crop the edges of the sky into a jagged square—you can’t see where the blue meets the ragged brown of the hills surrounding the city.

Even in the open courtyard, it’s oppressive.

Sometime after noon, the gates open and a dozen kids—some I recognize from school, others even younger than Pilar—file into the prison, their white uniforms coated with a layer of orange dust from the streets outside. Once they’re in, they disappear into the back of the prison or tramp up the stairwell to the upper levels, where cells rim the balcony overlooking the courtyard below.

One of the guys from school stops and looks me over. José, I think. No one Reynaldo and I would hang out with. Not because he’s younger than us, but because he always looks like he rolled in a trash heap before coming to school. I guess now I know why.

José’s eyebrows raise in a question, and I want to knock it right off his face. No, I am not just like you. I am not anything like you.

“Do those kids live here?” Pilar asks.

“Yes,” Papá says. “If they have no other place to go, the whole family moves into the prison.”

We watch as half of the kids leave again, their school uniforms traded for street clothes, their arms filled with trays of wooden toys or food to sell outside. Anything that will help their families pay for life in here.

Mamá goes back through the gate to the guard station in the entryway of the prison to ask about visiting hours, and meals, and notes from the outside coming and going. Papá takes us to see the wood shop where the prisoners make furniture to be sold in the plaza across the street. The beds they make support the families that live with them in prison, or the ones who can afford to live outside the walls.

“I can quit school and help pay the rent,” I say to Papá. “I can get a job until they let you out. I can take care of Mamá and Pilar, and you, too.”

“No, Francisco. You think because I am in prison, that means my plans for you have changed? You think I will give up on you so easily?”

The hours pass slowly. I leave Pilar with Papá and go looking for the bathroom at the back of the prison. The smell lets me know when I’m close. Inside, there’s a rusted metal sink in the corner where one of the prisoners is scrubbing sharp-smelling soap into a bucket full of clothes. He cuts his eyes to me as I step inside.

“I wouldn’t go in there. Toilet’s backed up again.”

And that’s when I notice the floor. The drain in the middle of the concrete can’t keep up with the water and . . . other stuff flowing out of the toilet. I pick up my feet—the soles of my shoes are slick with it. My throat seizes, and I back out of there, a hand over my mouth to keep from retching.

Never mind, I don’t have to go.

My eyes water as I make it into the hallway. I’m not looking where I’m going, and I almost run into two guys pinning another prisoner against the wall. One of them has a knife. All three of them are staring at me now.

I can hold my own in a fistfight with other guys my age, but this? I’m not cut out for this. I back away and break into a run. What was Mamá thinking, bringing us here? And how is Papá ever going to survive this place?

When I get back to the courtyard, I slow my run to a walk. The last of the kids are back, spilling in and out of shadowed doorways. Most of them disappear into cells, the doors clicking one after another and locking them inside. Yeah. I’d lock the door too if I had to live here.

The stream of people coming in and out of the prison gate slows to a stop.

“You two should get going now.” Papá stands and wipes off his hands. “I wonder what’s taking your mother so long?”

There’s a catch in his voice. Papá’s shoulders are slumped, and his head droops low. I look away as he turns and walks over to the gate between us and the guard station, where Mamá passed through a while ago.

“Come on, Pilar.” I tap her on the shoulder. “It’s time to—”

“My wife did what?” Papá yells.

Pilar and I run over to the gate. Papá’s eyes are wide, his hands clamped against the sides of his head.

“Papá?” Pilar whispers.

He lowers his hands, and pulls us close.

The guard on the other side of the gate looks bored. He shrugs his shoulders. “She left. About thirty minutes ago.”

Papá blinks, like he’s trying to catch his mind up to the things he’s hearing. “What if something happened to her? What if she’s—”

“No. I was right here. She signed out and just walked away.”

“But the children—she didn’t take Francisco and Pilar. Why wouldn’t she take our children with her?”

“Maybe she didn’t realize we lock the gate at six,” the guard says, “and she’ll be back later tonight.”

Pilar tugs Papá’s hand. “Maybe she went out to get us dinner.”

Papá pats Pilar’s hand, but he doesn’t take his eyes off the guard. I don’t either. Something about the way the guy said that last part wasn’t right. Like he didn’t believe his own words.

“The truth, please,” Papá says softly.

The guard twists the barrel of the rifle in his hands. “It happens sometimes. A man ends up in here and . . . it’s all too much—too hard to raise the kids alone on the outside. The wife leaves.” The guard shrugs again. “It doesn’t happen often. But sometimes.”

Now he looks guilty? Now?

“Look, the kids can stay here with you until the boy turns eighteen. Then just the girl.”

“Here?” I think Papá has stopped breathing altogether. “My children, living here?”

“The prison director prefers they be transferred to an orphanage, but those facilities are currently above capacity—”

“My children are not orphans!”

The guard holds up a hand, and Papá takes a step back.

“It is best if they can stay with family outside the prison. But if there is no one who will take them, then yes, your children can live here with you.”

I can’t feel my fingers. I can’t feel my legs. “Let me go,” I say to Papá. “Let me go find her—it must have been a mistake. She wouldn’t just leave us here! Let me talk to her.”

“You can’t,” the guard says with another shrug. “The gate is locked for the night. No one leaves again until morning.”

Papá stretches his arm across my chest to hold me back. Pilar’s head is bobbing up and down as her breath comes out in raspy gasps.

I thought Mamá was just angry. I thought she didn’t stay with us and try to comfort Papá because she was worried about the money and how she was going to take care of us all by herself. I thought last night Mamá was packing things for Papá, so his time at the prison wouldn’t be so hard, and so he could have a little of home with him here.

Seventeen. Almost a man. How can I still be so stupid?

“I’ll go get her in the morning, Papá. I’ll bring her back.”

The words are slow to leave him. “If it makes you feel better, Francisco, go to the house and look for her tomorrow. But I think if your mother could leave you in this place for even one night, then she is gone. There’s no one left for you to find.”

reprinted from "An Uninterrupted View of the Sky by Melanie Crowder with permission of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Melanie Crowder, 2017.