Babies behind bars paying for the sins of their mothers
By ANTONY GITONGA | March 15th 2015
NAIVASHA: It is a cold and wet morning at Naivasha Women’s Prison. A group of inmates lie side by side on thin mattresses that have seen better times. The silence is broken by the sound of heavy boots as warders approach the cells then noisily unlock one of the heavy doors.
The noise wakes up a toddler who protests the interruption of her sleep by screaming at the top of her voice. Her mother’s efforts to calm her down are fruitless as other children wake up and also start to wail.
Despite the sharp rebuke by the warders that the youngsters be quieted, the cries get louder, and last another 30 minutes before rocking, soothing sounds and breastfeeding restores calm.
One of the women, Esther, has been at the prison for two weeks since she delivered her baby girl at the nearby Naivasha Sub-county Hospital. She is serving a two-year term for cutting her neighbour with a knife during a brawl. The mother of two was convicted two months ago when she was seven months pregnant.
While expressing regret for the actions that landed her in jail, Esther’s biggest worry is the foundation laid for her newborn.
Like other inmates who have their children with them, Esther describes the confinement as a living nightmare.
“My daughter knows no other home. She is suffering for my sins, and I hope that one day I will repay her for the suffering,” Esther says, tears running down her cheeks.
Her words and situation are echoed in women’s prisons across Kenya.
According to an independent source, the country has an estimated 50,000 inmates and remand suspects in prisons. Of these, about 3,000 are women, a third of whom are serving their sentences with their children. The minors are aged between a day and four years.
Children above the age of four are taken to special schools or to relatives to comply with prison laws.
But even then, the possibility of a four-year staying behind bars has child experts and counsellors deeply concerned.
They say the prison environment is a perilous den to raise youngsters, and can affect their mental wellbeing.
“Adults face challenges adjusting to prison life, so one can only imagine what minors go through. It is a big problem,” says Wanjiru Ngige, a counsellor from Lifebloom International, which deals with abused women and minors.
Wanjiru says the children are often forced to live like adults because there is no provision for them to play with their age-mates or engage in age-appropriate activities.
“The prison surroundings are not conducive for the proper development of children, and there is an urgent need to address this problem,” she says.
However, the counsellor is quick to point out that some women are behind bars for child neglect, so their stay with the minors can be a blessing in disguise.
“They have to learn that their children are their responsibility, and incarceration teaches them the this lesson hard way,” she says.
But even for women generally considered ‘tough’, life in prison, and with a child to boot, comes with great challenges.
Take Maria, who is serving two years at Naivasha Women’s Prison, with her toddler in tow. The 24-year-old commercial sex worker says she was jailed five months ago after she injured another woman in a bar room brawl.
“I come from a poor family, and no one wanted to be associated with me after my arrest. My relatives didn’t want to look after my two-year-old while I was in jail, so he is in prison with me,” Maria says.
“Life is hard for me and my baby in many ways. We don’t like the diet, the clothes and the general environment.”
The Prisons Department has decried the high number of minors being held in penal institutions with their mothers, and called on the Judiciary to review the cases of those serving terms that are shorter than two years. It’s been suggested that this be commuted to a non-custodial sentence revolving around community service.
The officer in charge of Naivasha Women Prison, Esther Kibet, admits that prison compounds are not the best of environments to raise minors, even with the nurseries that have been provided for older children..
Often, says Kibet, prisons have to rely on well-wishers to support the mothers and their babies because the funding they receive in inadequate.
“Nevertheless, we make sure that the minors have enough food to eat and that they have space to play,” she says.
The officer in charge of the Naivasha prison command, Patrick Mwenda, agrees that it is unfair to continue holding the innocent minors for crimes committed by their mothers.
“We have more than 20 minors staying with their mothers at Naivasha Women’s Prison, and this must be confronted,” he says.
One way of dealing with this problem is reducing the length of their custodial sentences.
The officer, who is also in charge of Naivasha GK Prison, says the foundation of minors should not be compromised.
High Court Judge Stephen Githinji, who has visited the Naivasha prison, says the Judiciary is ready to look into the issue. Minors who are put in one cell with their mothers are likely to be traumatised, says Githinji who now wants the Court Users Committee to intervene.
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