Nancy Chepkoech is serving a jail term at the Nakuru GK Female Prison alongside her three-year-old son Felix Kipkemoi. When Health & Science paid her a visit, she was busy helping out with school assignments.
Chepkoech from Keringet in Kuresoi was convicted of murder in February 2013 when she was barely two weeks pregnant and was worried how she would manage, but on due day, she was taken to the Rift Valley Provincial General hospital where she gave birth safely.
“I pleaded with the judge to put me on probation because I was worried about challenges that awaited me at the cells, but surprisingly, I was received well and gave birth safely in a hospital,” Chepkoech recalled, adding motherhood was not as problematic as she had thought.
Chepkoech wakes up at 6am, prepares her son for school and ensures he has breakfast served at the facility. Though she preserves ample time for bonding, she has noticed instances of psychological distress as “there are times my son asks whether all children at the centre are his siblings and I fail to respond because I do not want him to know I am serving a jail sentence. This, I fear, might affect his growth.”
Children subjected to overcrowding
Besides exposure to psychological distress, children living with imprisoned mothers risk suffering from diarrhea, malaria, pneumonia, malnutrition, and skin conditions, according to a report by the Africa Early Childhood Network (AfECN) which carried out the study at Lang’ata Women Maximum Prison which, like most such facilities, lacks playing and sleeping space for children who are either born there or accompany their mothers serving jail terms.
The aforementioned diseases are attributed to lack of proper sanitation and poor diet besides insufficient supply of water and mosquito nets.
Like the prisoners, children are subjected to overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, unsanitary conditions, inadequate bedding and lack of a good learning environment.
The report says that “without the appropriate levels of support, they (children) will likely suffer, facing irreparable sub-optimal development, with lifelong effects and resulting in a generation of children whose future is distorted by imprisonment of primary caregivers.”
Winnie Guchu, Interior Chief Administrative Secretary, says there is need to provide psychological support and mental preparation besides social skills to the children to help with integration, which according to the Kenya Prisons Service, happens after the children turn four years.
Guchu was speaking at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development last week during a presentation on the status of childcare services in prisons. It emerged that “majority of the 43 female penal facilities lack sleeping spaces for children, functional day-care centers, and pre-primary education facilities.”
In fact, of 43 facilities, about 10 have daycare centres and nurseries while some without have seen women become innovative for the sake of the children. In Kapenguria Prison, mothers use under tress for play and napping.
Something else. Mothers exclusively breastfeed their children, but prison meals lack adequate nutritional value for exclusive breastfeeding until a child turns one year old, yet nutritionists encourage mothers to feed on a balanced diet.
Malnutrition contributes to 45 per cent of all under-five children deaths while poor breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices contribute to 19 per cent of the deaths, according to the Ministry of Health.
Children need art, play therapy in prisons
Kenyan prisons face myriad challenges including lack of a policy to guide the provision of a nurturing environment for children besides insufficient funds to provide clothing, medication, food, and bedding, according to a recent study by then Africa Early Childhood Network (AfECN).
The study recommends Nurturing Care for Early Childhood Development interventions in female penal institutions to create safe nurturing spaces for children living with incarcerated mothers besides providing meals.
Meals provided should be as per the ministerial guidelines on nutrition, including feeding children at least three meals every day, and two snacks for older children to avoid stunting.
There should also be separate wings for mothers and children for better growth besides establishing child-friendly psychosocial support with “a trauma-focused approach when dealing with the children ”who should be given art and play therapy to assist them adjust to the prison environment.”
AfECN recommended that children enjoy a social life, including celebrating birthdays and family reunions.