BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – A woman in her 40s walks around her house, packing rice, noodles, cookies and bread into black bags to bring to her son in prison.
In between packing, she sits down and drinks maté, an infusion typical to the region that is drunk through a straw. The heat of Villa 21-24, a slum of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, seeps in through the window.
Silvia Roldán, a sturdy mother of five children, has dark skin and curly, black hair that falls to her shoulders. Born in Salta, she still retains her accent despite the 25 years it’s been since she left the northwestern province for Buenos Aires.
When Roldán finally sits down to rest, she has a serious look on her face. She knits her eyebrows and sighs before sharing that she is preparing food to take to her 20-year-old son, Lautaro Maidana, at Complejo Penitenciario Federal II de Marcos Paz, a prison situated west of the capital.
The trip takes Roldán three hours via public transportation. She leaves at a 6 a.m. and arrives at 9 a.m.
Maidana, Roldán’s third child, began his criminal streak when he was 15. He ended up in jail after an armed attempt to steal a car during October 2012. Four others were involved, but only Maidana got caught.
Roldán says that she remembers the incident well because it was Mother’s Day, celebrated the third Sunday of October in Argentina. She spent the entire day at the police station.
“You don’t know how it hurts!” Roldán says. “After everything I did for him.”
Maidana could serve four to seven years in prison.
Young people facing criminal charges say they steal and commit other offenses in order to obtain the things they need or want, while parents and social workers cite idleness, influence from peers and unstable home lives. After a failed bill proposing to lower the age of accountability nationally, community members in Buenos Aires debate whether harsher punishment or rehabilitation is the solution.
There are 119 juvenile detention centers in Argentina, according to a report conducted in 2007 by the national Ministerio de Desarrollo Social, which promotes social development, in conjunction with UNICEF and the Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero. The majority have a closed system in which barriers, barbed-wire fences, walls and security guards prevent minors from leaving. In others, residents may go out alone or with authorized supervisors.
The researchers for the report visited 72 establishments in the country that confine children and teenagers. They registered nearly 6,300 minors living in juvenile detention centers or participating in other court-ordered correctional programs.
Lucas Martín, coordinator of the Dirección Nacional de Readaptación Social under the national Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos, says that the number of minors convicted annually of crimes or currently in detention is not public information. The directorate is in charge of the social inclusion of current and former inmates in federal prisons.
As Roldán bags the groceries, she shares her son’s story while struggling