Why children born in prison risk battling mental health conditions

Thursday, April 15th, 2021 00:00 |
Inmates and their children at the Nakuru Women GK Prison. Photo/Courtesy

The mental health and well-being of children raised in prisons is at risk owing to the environment they are exposed to, a new report has shown. 

A report by Africa Early Childhood Network on ‘status of childcare services in women’s prison in Kenya: The case of Lang’ata Women’s Prison’ indicates that the children’s mental health and well being is at risk, because they are exposed to a unique environment given the fact that they are confined with their mothers even though they are not convicts.

“The child may not have the advantage for optimal development. The child lacks the freedom and spontaneity that accompanies childhood and space and freedom to play,” the report.

In the study released early this month, out of the 43 female penal institutions in the country, only 10 are well facilitated with daycare centres, representing slightly less than a quarter of all facilities.

This means that over 75 per cent of facilities need support. According to the report, budgets are allocated per station, meaning all penal institutions, including female ones, have their own budget lines, which cannot be altered. 

“For every female inmate, the government allocates Sh215 and for children Sh410 daily. There are approximately 250 children in prisons in the country currently,” the report adds.

Given the constraints on privacy and lack of adequate space in the living arrangements of mothers and their children (all mothers live with their children in the same room), the report says children are exposed to inappropriate sights and sounds. 

Increasingly aware

“Children of both gender as they grow older – until the time they must leave the prison at four years – become increasingly aware of themselves and their identities. They also start to notice differences in morphology and anatomy,” the report.

“Due to lack of privacy, women often undress in the presence of all the other women and their children, either because they are oblivious of the effects of this act on their children or due to lack of options,” it adds.

Similarly, the report states that children can potentially acquire violent and aggressive and anti-social behaviour.

 The study adds that children are exposed to situations where their mothers may fight or quarrel over a myriad interpersonal issues, hurl insults and abuses at each other and other kinds of behaviour that a child ought not to experience. 

“Given that children learn by observation, they may grow up knowing that this is the normal way of life and may pick up criminal behaviour,” the report. 

Some of the gaps identified include the fact that Government does not set aside resources for other things that go along with a fully functional daycare centres like playing and learning materials and toys.

Similarly, there are insufficient funds to provide for the essential needs of young children, including clothes, medication, food and bedding as well as lack of balanced diet for both mothers and children.

Report has given childcare proposals to address the existing barriers to achieving and maintaining good quality services.

Proposals were made to lower the statutory age when the children can leave the prisons.

Currently, mothers are by law, permitted to have their children till they reach four years. 

Given the negative influences that may affect a child in prison and the fact that they are also exposed to the same conditions of the imprisoned mothers, it was felt that children should be allowed to leave earlier by law.

“Even though different ages were proposed, the consensus seemed to revolve around the age of two to three with two years being more favourable.

It was also suggested that as soon as the children are through with breastfeeding, they should be able to be disengaged,” the report. 

This would mean reuniting the children with their extended family, and where such a possibility does not exist, then the child would be given up for foster care either through adoption or through placement in a Charitable Children’s Institution (CCI).

“Whereas this looks straightforward, the reality of achieving this is not always easy.

Currently, the Kenya Prison Service works with the Children’s Department and other agencies, including the Court and Probation Services to coordinate this effort,” the report explains.

However, there is no clear policy guidance to streamline this reintegration process hence the proposal that an elaborate reintegration policy be developed to guide children’s disengagement from their mothers and the prisons setting.

Protect lives

In some cases, the report states that when the time comes for children to be disengaged from the prisons, mothers may not be comfortable having their children handed over to their extended families.

Similarly, CCIs may also not be an ideal place, especially with mothers serving long sentences, because sometimes by the time they are through with their sentences, some of the CCIs may have wound up and mothers may never be able to trace their children.

“Given that it is the cardinal responsibility of the government to protect the life of its citizens, a proposal was made for State to establish centers where children disengaged from their mothers can be taken care of effectively until their mothers are through with their sentences and can be able to trace them,” the report.

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