Plight of children serving jail term with their mothers

Wednesday, January 12th, 2022 00:00 | By
Children who have accompanied their mothers in prison do some chores. Photo/PD/ROSE MUTHONI

Innocent young ones of imprisoned mums face profound and complex threats to their emotional, physical and social well-being as incarceration has lasting effects on their lives as Teresa Njoroge, a former inmate and Margaret Njihia, a clinical psychologist and child therapist reveal.

When Teresa Njoroge walked through the gates of Langata Women’s Prison holding her three-month-old daughter Uma (meaning truth in Gikuyu), she had no idea what lay ahead of her.

Wrongfully accused of banking fraud in 2008, Teresa was unable to get the justice she deserved and was instead whisked with her infant to a maximum security prison in March 2011 that would not only cause her untold anguish, but open her eyes to the suffering that women and children go through behind bars.

For the next eight months, Teresa would wake up to a lot of cries and hopelessness.

“Women cry because they do not know how to get themselves out of this situation, some did not commit the crime and some are there because of petty survival crimes.

Ninety per cent of the women there are mothers, so most of them have left their children outside and because they are the sole breadwinners, they normally agonise, who is with the children, where are they?

You can imagine waking up to this pain, trauma and depression every day,” she recalls.

Life in prison opened her eyes to the untold suffering that children born in prison or accompanying their mother go through during their stay and after they are discharged.

In Kenya, women are allowed to stay with their children in prison up to age four to allow the child bond with the mother.

“When I was in prison, the children stayed until they were seven, but that was reduced to four years to reduce the negative influence prison might have on them,” says Teresa, who founded Clean Start to help mothers and children reintegrate back to society after their stay in prison.  

Even with the early discharge, the children are still psychologically affected by their stay in prison.

According to Margaret Njihia, a clinical psychologist and child therapist, minors impacted by the justice system have feelings of fear, are likely to exhibit anger outbursts, feel neglected, are anxious and are unsettled.

“Having a parent incarcerated is one among 10 adverse childhood experiences.

This child has more often than not witnessed the arrest of the mother, which is traumatic in itself.

If the child witnessed the arrest, then we are talking about a traumatised child who has been exposed to some form of violence,” says Margaret.

Helpless mum, traumatised child

Whilst dealing with the depressive situation and the ensuing feelings, incarcerated mothers are unable to provide the emotional support their children need, which can lead to feelings of neglect.

“This child’s environment has changed and their mother’s emotional state is poor and she is, therefore not connecting emotionally with the child.

This mother is already in conflict with the law, sometimes by the time they are going to prison, chances are she had the child with her even in the court. As it is, the child has gone through multiple traumas.

If this mother has other children out there, she wonders what is going to happen to them, are they feeding and who is taking care of them.

We have an emotionally unhealthy mother who is less likely to execute their motherly role as compared to any other outside the prison system,” says Margaret.

The way the prison hours are structured also deny the mother the opportunity to give optimum care to their child.

Margaret says that prisons have a rigid routine that is not good for a growing child. The system is set in stone and strictly follows the Prison’s Act.

The way prisons are managed, she says, is such that these mothers are not allowed to spend the entire day with the child because she has to carry out chores like any other inmate.

“You are in a system that has an already laid out programme and process and you cannot change the order.

You wake up at 3am to prepare yourself because at 6am, the doors will be opened and each inmate will be counted to confirm that no one escaped.

You are then given a jar of porridge before proceeding to your station. From 6am to 6pm when you will be locked again, you are normally outside doing chores,” recalls Teresa.

Teresa decries the deplorable conditions in prison that children, even though they are innocent, have to be subjected to.

“It smells a lot, there is no water, there is no fresh air, no windows and there are hundreds of you locked in together. It is a place that depresses you by just being there,” she says.

Childhood years are marked with a lot of play and adventure, which not only bring the child so much joy, but also helps with cognitive development, fine-motor skills and creativity. But for the young ones housed in prison, play is at times a rare occurrence.

Deplorable conditions

“Only 10 women prisons have child care centres. All the others do not. There are few prisons where a child can go and play and even find donated toys to play with.

In the prisons where childcare centres do not exist, the children seldom play and lack stimulation, which is critical in the formative years.

Infrastructure to house a child is also lacking so some end up sitting under trees and others stay in the cells all day,” says Teresa.

Once a child hits four years, they have to be reintegrated back to society. However, lack of a clear reintegration plan affects the child negatively.

“First up there is no structure for the woman to reintegrate back into society, now imagine how it is for the child.

We had a child who was reintegrating from Murang’a Women’s Prison and the mum was still serving her sentence. The child had never seen the outside world.

Luckily for this child, the grandmother was willing to take her. At least she was not taken to another institution.

You cannot begin to imagine how long it took for this child to accept being taken by the grandmother.

She did not know her or the new home she was going to. She did not understand why they were leaving her mother behind.

In the case where there is no family to receive the child, the child is taken away from the mother and is taken to an institution. These children really suffer, yet it is not their crime,” says Teresa.

According to Margaret the sudden disconnect from the mother, the change in caregivers and the new environment is a cultural and social shock for the minor.

“This child is likely to suffer from reactive attachment disorder because they have been separated from the person they know and taken to someone else.

It usually is not a smooth transition. It needs to be started a bit earlier — the child and the caregiver need to be prepared, says Margaret.

Socially, the children have to adapt to many changes, which can be daunting.

“Because they have never interacted with the outside world, there is a lot of trauma and confusion; mental, emotional and social issues.

Female prisons predominantly have women — the imprisoned are women, the warders are women.

When a boy is born, he is like an alien because they have never seen another man or a boy.

For a girl child, it becomes hard to reintegrate once they are discharged from prison because they have rarely seen a man,” says Teresa adding that since these children grow up seeing guns, fighting and sometimes heard vulgar language, they do not know anything else.

Gap in formative years

Margaret says that the time spent in prison has a profound effect on the child’s personality.

“Personality is developed in the first six years of life and this child has spent the first four in a controlled environment.

In this case, the child does not know of any other environment, so you will notice that even the language of this child will be the language they acquired in prison.

Their worldview is influenced by what the environment gave them. Whatever happens in the entire prison is what the child will pick,” she says.

“When the child is discharged, they see people wearing different clothes, they see colour for the first time, people are not shouting and fighting and there are no guns.

These children deal with these issues for a long time before they are reversed. They become isolated when they leave prison and do not socialise easily,” she says.

Adapting in normal world

When Teresa was released from prison in November 2011, she knew she had to be deliberate about how she raised Uma.

The eight months they had spent at Langata, had affected how her child was socialised.

“It was difficult initially. My daughter had never taken a bath in a bath tub, for instance. She cried a lot because she had not seen so much water. She had never seen me in normal clothes.

She had only seen me with prison clothes,” recalls Teresa whose charges were dropped in March 2013 after the courts realised that she had been wrongfully convicted.

Because she was still young when they left prison, Teresa gave Uma a lot of love and was deliberate about how she socialised her.

“In prison, children grab and put a lot of food in their mouths because they do not know when they will have the next meal.

I had to help her overcome that and teach her to consume things that we take for granted such as eggs and fruits. As she has grown, I take her for counselling so that the time she spent in prison does not affect her in the future,” she says.

As new caregivers struggles to create normalcy, they also have to contend with stigma from neighbours, which compounds the psychological trauma a child has to go through.

“Imagine your sister is in prison and all of a sudden after four years, you have to bring that child home.

Then the neighbours become inquisitive of the child. When they hear this child was accompanying the mother in prison, the child carries the mother’s criminal label even though they are innocent.

You find that integrating this child with society is difficult.,” says Margaret.

Many incarcerated mothers are in conflict with the law because of poverty. Some find themselves in trouble because they broke the law trying to provide for their offspring.

“Because many of these mothers come from poor backgrounds, when you look at needs such as education, these children continue lacking even after they are discharged from prison.

Some did not get early learning whilst in prison and they do not get education opportunities when they leave.

In addition to the effects of spending time in prison, there are other socio-economic issues that follow them even after they are discharged from prison,” says Teresa, whose organisation seeks to economically empower women after they leave prison and offer psychosocial support to children who have been impacted by the justice system.

But what angers Teresa is the fact that some of these children suffer because the justice system is flawed.

“What makes it sad is that some women have been jailed for petty survival crimes such as hawking or lacking a mask.

They can be given a non-custodial sentence such as community service, but instead they are imprisoned making these children suffer for something that could have been avoided.

I think the police, the magistrate and the prosecutors should be sensitive to mothers and their children,” laments Teresa.

Charge sheet and mums

She advises the police, when preparing the charge sheet, to indicate parental responsibilities that woman carries.

“Indicate that this is a pregnant woman, or this is a mother, they have been accompanied by a child or have left two or three children behind.

When you arrest this woman and you did not ask these questions, where do you imagine these children are?

When they capture this information at the point of arrest, the prosecutor and the magistrate will put this into consideration when sentencing the woman,” she adds.    

Margaret applauds the Prison’s Department for taking a step towards improving the stay of children in prisons.

“The prison’s department is working on a policy document that will give guidance on these children’s dietary, medical and early learning needs. I know this policy is at an advanced stage.

We should actually see that policy being launched probably before March this year. It will answer all questions and fill all gaps,” she says.

Clean Start has over the years supported children accompanying their incarcerated mothers through responsive caregiving training to prison warders and mothers whilst providing a dignity care pack, which carries diapers, petroleum jelly, warm clothes, nappies and liners—everything that a child needs.

“There is no budget allocation in prison for children, so we reach out to well-wishers to give us these dignity packs for close to 300 children who are being raised in prison.

Per quota we budget Sh1,200 to get dignity packs for the child. We also get nutritional food stuff, such as green grams, porridge flour, fruits, and milk to take to the children because children do not have their own special diet in prison.

We have also partnered with Kenya Paediatric Association to make sure that the children are well taken care of medically whilst in prison,” she says.

More on Lifestyle