Motherhood behind bars

A day care attendant at the Nakuru Women Prison feeds children during lunch break.JANUARY 31, 2017. PHOTO BY MERCY KAHENDA

Prison is the one place where no person of sound mind would willingly set foot and make it their new home. However, for little children whose mothers have been incarcerated, prison becomes their new abode as they stay within the premises — keeping their jailed mothers company.

At the Nakuru Women Prison, authorities there ensured they provide mothers ample time to bond with their children by creating a home away from home experience for them.

According to the Prison in-charge Rosemary Njenga, a number of women arrive at their facility either pregnant or with young children — who they are allowed to raise there until the age of four.

“We currently have 15 mothers out of the 148 inmates and majority of these are women convicted of petty offenses, for example selling of illicit brew,” she said.

Whereas these women may not have been responsible mothers on the outside, Rosemary says being locked up with their children converts them into hands-on mothers who have no option but to bond and care for their children.

“These children are innocent. They have done nothing wrong to earn them a prison sentence. We therefore ensure that their stay here is not a difficult one,” the warden says.

With this in mind, the facility has set up a child friendly nursery centre decorated with various drawings ranging from cartoons, animals and plants that attract young children.

A television set provides ample entertainment for the children as they watch various shows while playing with the few available stuffed animals gives them a sense of normalcy. Just like children not growing up behind bars.

The mothers have access to the centre anytime they are free as the wardens encourage them to spend as much time with their children as possible.

In the morning, all mothers assemble at the centre where they prepare their young ones for school.

Those not of age are left under the care of a nun, deployed by the management, who watches over them as the mothers tend to their daily chores.

When Life visited the facility recently, we found Nancy Chepkoech busy assisting her three-year-old son, Felix Kipkemoi, with his school assignment.

Chepkoech, from Keringet area in Kuresoi, was convicted of murder in February 2013 when she was barely two weeks expectant.

During her conviction, she was worried how she would manage her pregnancy, while behind bars, and what she would do when it was time to give birth.

She, however, need not have worried because the prison officers not only took her to the Rift Valley Provincial General hospital where she gave birth safely, they provided her with all the essentials she needed to care for a newborn baby.

“The officers here have been very kind to me. They received me very well when I came, took care of me all through my pregnancy and when my child was born, I was given time to care for and breastfeed my baby. They did not assign me any external duties,” Chepkoech says.

Motherhood at the facility, she says, is not challenging as one would anticipate.

Her daily schedule starts at 6am when she gets up and heads to the centre to prepare her son for school. She ensures he is clean, dressed warmly and takes breakfast served at the centre before he heads out.

After her son comes back from school, at around noon, and despite being assigned various roles, Chepkoech is given time to bond with her son and later in the evening when free.

The only challenge she has right now is that her son only mingles with the same people within the facility unlike outside where he can visit various relatives and make more friends.

“There are times he asks whether all children at the centre are his siblings and I do not know how to respond. I do not want him to know I am serving a life sentence — I fear this might affect his growth,” she says.

Margret Kilunja is another mother we find busy playing with her two-and-half-year-old daughter. Kilunja is serving a five year sentence after she was convicted of being in illegal possession of a firearm.

Narrating her ordeal, the mother of three is moved by emotions, she stares at her daughter as she recalls the cold morning when she was arrested in Narok.

“When I was handed my sentence, I broke down into tears thinking about my daughter’s welfare. She was then barely six months old. I also did not know how I was going to survive with her behind bars,” she says. Once at the facility, Kilunja says she was taken through counseling which enabled her settle down quickly into her role as an inmate while continuing to care for her daughter.

According to her, motherhood at the facility is made easier because mothers have ample time to give attention to their children.

“Despite freedom being limited at prison, mothers have enough time to monitor their children’s growth.

I have spent a lot of time with my child, probably more than I would have if I was home where I would most likely have hired a house help to take care of her while I do my errands,” she says.

Serah Waithera from Molo is another mother living with her four-year-old daughter at the facility after being sentenced in 2012.

Waithera, who is serving her seven year jail term, was accused of robbery, a crime she says was committed by her estranged husband, who was freed immediately after arrest.

When she came to prison, her daughter was seven months old and she worried about what would befall her young baby.

Waithera says she had no idea that children accompany their mothers to prison until the day she was booked. While not an ideal situation, the inmate says allowing mothers to live with their children is the best thing the government has done to promote the family unit.

“I have two other children at home and I miss them dearly but I am happy that at least the last born is here with me. I have seen her go through her early years and now she is going to school,” Waithera says.

Apart from ensuring mothers bond with and offer care to their children, warden Njenga says they also equip these women with industrial skills.

“We enroll them for industrial activities at the facility where they acquire skills that enable them earn a living after serving their prison term for example tailoring, farming and embroidery.