I want to echo what Dr.Sharon Wray ,one of the participants said,"It's certainly an experience that stays with you" and Rebecca Ginsburg said,"I'm still steeping deeply in the memories and thoughts of Study Week. Thank you again, all, for such a meaningful and wonderful experience."
Ben Raikes also a participant in one of his comments said ," – everything I experienced is so vivid in my mind – and will be forever !"
The week long international Study Week is a specialized expedition through spectacular and unique interventions being carried out by Wells of Hope to mitigate the challenges brought about by parental imprisonment.
The participants visited the Uganda prisons to interact with the parents in prison whose children wells of Hope supports, they also spent a whole day at Wells of Hope Academy the school for children of prisoners and also they visited grandparents who care for children of prisoners in the different villages .On the first day of the week they visited Wells of Hope offices and later on had several meetings with Wells of Hope's key contacts ,Uganda Prisons service , the National Council for Children and the Uganda Children Rights NGO Network.
The Study week culminated into a round-table discussion on the 28th September 2013 at Imperial Royale Hotel, Kampala ; the roundtable was an awesome way to sum up, exchange ideas, share lessons learned, and collectively arrive at an Action Agenda for Children whose Parents are in Prison.
The Roundtable Discussion
The round-table discussion took place on the 28th September 2013 at Imperial Royale Hotel, Kampala, and was attended by all the participants, Wells of Hope key Staff and officers from two Civil Society Organisations. We had anticipated a legislator and some three people from international human rights and children rights organizations and dignitaries representing embassies, but they were unable to attend.
Summary of participants’ observations and Experience during the week.
Participants in the International Study Week shared their thoughts on what they had experienced.
Engaging the men on death row and women serving such long sentences had shown how Wells of Hope brought “light to dark places”
Wells of Hope enabled imprisoned mothers and fathers to put their children at the forefront of their minds
Isolated and unsupported children do not do well in all countries of the world. The support provided by Wells of Hope enables children to flourish. Wells of hope was perceived as a lifesaver in the most literal sense – saving children from all forms of abuse and even child sacrifice.
Wells of Hope does magnificent work in affirming imprisoned mother’s and father’s roles .
One participant had asked children what they liked about studying at Wells of Hope Academy – they answered:
- The food
- Their studies
- Visiting their Mum and Dad in prison
Reactions and Comments from the Observations;
Dr.Sharon Wary highlighted the impression the situation of grandparents looking after grandchildren whose parents were in prison had made upon her. In particular their health needs (e.g. arthritis, cataracts), the cost of transport to medical facilities and medical treatment, the difficulties they faced in visiting their children, the land they had to tend to which only produced enough for a meagre subsistence and the dangers they faced in terms of their housing being unsafe and on the verge of collapse.
However the hardest issues they faced were loneliness and isolation. Often they had little support from their own children who expected them to look after their cattle. The Grand children are away at school who used to keep them company and the community does not associate with them because they consider that they are the ones that gave birth to a murderer.
Rebecca reflected on the impact of the Death Penalty, making comparisons to the USA. She works in a prison in Illinois where the death Penalty was abolished in 2011. She recalled how a man had his death sentence commuted to Life imprisonment, and how much the man had changed. He had transformed himself from a dangerous 18 year old to a gentle man in prison. She pondered on the fact that if he had been executed a “kind loving spirit would be lost to the world”. She also reminded us that the Death penalty is disproportionately given to poor people, and the perils of having such an irrevocable penalty when inevitably some innocent people will be executed, often due to the lack of good legal representation.
Education is crucial in promoting integration and social skills as highlighted by the male prisoners’ participants met in the group discussion they had with them. The prisoners identified that these benefits are what prevents offending, and therefore the inference was that Wells of Hope will most likely be preventing intergenerational offending.
BEN RAIKES highlighted the Discussion regarding Wells of Hope’s work supporting children of prisoners preventing inter-generational offending, thereby preventing children of prisoners becoming offenders themselves. This could be a lever for money from Government to support Wells of Hope, as it could be argued this would save money in the long run – i.e. cost of crime and imprisonment. In the UK bids to support families affected by imprisonment need to demonstrate an impact on preventing inter-generational offending., However we agreed too that statistics in relation to inter-generational offending should be viewed with caution as they generally do not include girls and also give ammunition to those who wish to negatively label, stereotype and stigmatise children of prisoners.
The meeting recognised the positive impact that Wells of Hope has upon the attitude of imprisoned parents in relation to parenting. During the study week participants heard from children and their imprisoned parents regarding how highly they valued prison visits. The visits allow prisoners to maintain contact with their children which in turn gives rise to positive thoughts and hope, thereby building their resilience to cope with what could be seen as a hopeless situation. This in turn benefits their children who are concerned about their imprisoned parents’ well- being as they are reassured by seeing that they are coping on visits.
We discussed the merits of considering children affected by imprisonment as a distinct group with unique needs, as opposed to seeing them as part of a wider group, for example “Vulnerable Children and Orphans”. GLORIA lecturer at Makerere University reminded us that 69% of children in Uganda are categorised as “vulnerable”, with 52% categorised as “critically vulnerable”. We know that children who are supported are less vulnerable. It is important to ensure that the Government sees how the work of Wells of Hope fits into its current priorities – e.g. Social Protection and the national targets that have been set for Uganda. Children talking directly to Government can be an effective way of getting messages across, if children are properly supported. Is generic or specialist support more appropriate? Advantage of including them under a broader category is that they are less likely to be labelled and stigmatised. Disadvantage is that they may not receive support tailored to their needs if they are part of a more generic group. Labels also create convenient categories for policy makers in terms of how they conceptualise different groups, although sometimes these labels are not recognised by the children themselves. The ideal is for children with parents in prison to decide themselves how they will be referred to. The meeting considered that the phrase “children affected by imprisonment” may be less stigmatising than the term “children of prisoners”. We agreed the best way forward is to ensure all vulnerable children receive basic services such as education, while also ensuring they receive specialist services that met their particular needs. Sarah has written a poem “Reversible Thinking” on this theme which is available on the Families Outside website.
We recognised that the needs of families affected by imprisonment continued after the family member was released from prison. For example a prisoner who was suicidal might continue to feel this way upon their release due to the profound problems, e.g. poverty that they continue to face.
We reflected on the impression that meeting the imprisoned mothers had made upon the participants. Key points were how much they missed their children, how much they wanted their children to go to school, and how worried they were about their parents being stigmatised by the fact they were in prison, adding to the stress they already had in relation to caring for their children. We were also very concerned about the injustices that arose for the women as a result of not being able to afford good quality legal representation and legal bottlenecks, with the result that it was possible some women were serving sentences for crimes they did not commit. Francis also made us aware of the issue of bail money and how many parents remanded in custody could be released if they could afford the relatively modest amounts required for bail. Addressing the legal bottlenecks, providing free legal services to the most poor is one way of helping children of prisoners, if their parents are released then they can go home and care for their children.
We recognised that children have fears about the well-being, physical and mental, of their parents and grandparents. When the participants met the children at Wells of Hope academy, the children became very emotional when given the opportunity to talk about their parents and grandparents. In contrast they spoke happily about their experiences at the school. The children the participants met at Wells of Hope appeared to be thriving, throwing their heart and soul into singing and dancing. When the participants asked them about their career aspirations it was apparent that they believed that all careers were potentially open to them.
FRANCIS SSUUBI reported about his recent input to the Geneva UN Human Rights Panel Discussion on children with a parent sentenced to the death penalty or executed , on 11th September 2013. He had focussed particularly on the impact the Death Penalty has upon the psychological well-being of children, a theme that was also stressed by the London based organisation Penal Reform International. Francis reminded us that once a parent has been sentenced to death their children and grandparents assume the sentence has been carried out, when in reality the parent is still alive as death sentences have not been carried out recently. Francis shared his experience that if the death penalty abolitionists turn the focus to the impact the death penalty has on the children then generally the discussions can find common ground and states with the death penalty could have a heart to abolish it because it is the ultimate solution to the impact death penalty has on children.
The issue of the need to support children of victims was raised by CATHERINE KOMUHANGI Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI). Some critics of wells of Hope have considered it is unfair that children of prisoners are prioritised. We speculated about whether you could have children of victims and children of prisoners in the same school. Of course it is possible that this could be the case without the children or Wells of Hope being aware of this. Francis considered that as there is very little support or sympathy for children of prisoners it is essential they are prioritised as there was more support for children of victims. Francis told us he was recently talking to a child rights worker about the way children of prisoners suffer. The worker told him they thought that was part of the punishment. Overall there was agreement that wherever possible Wells of Hope should link to existing support networks, some of whom had been involved in the study week. Another issue leading to children being vulnerable is the number of child headed households, sometimes with children as young as 8 taking charge.
Apart from the experiential research by Wells of Hope, There is very little research on Ugandan children of prisoners. A proposal has been submitted by Makerere University to undertake a rapid assessment to ascertain the number of children of prisoners in Uganda. Unfortunately funding for this has not yet been secured. However a pilot study has been commenced by Makerere University and Wells of Hope to inform the large grand-parenting bid that will be submitted in the New Year in conjunction with Huddersfield University UK and other partners. We agreed that meanwhile small scale qualitative research is very valuable to explore the feelings and priorities of grand-parents who look after their grand-children. We also agreed it would also be useful to learn more about the position of children of prisoners in countries that border Uganda, and to consider the extent to which the Wells of Hope model is applicable to them. Kathryn made the important point that existing research is very applicable to the Ugandan context, for example the data from the COPING Project that relates to Romania, where there is also widespread poverty, or Germany where there is little telephone contact between prisoners and their children. The negative impact of parental imprisonment on children of prisoners’ mental health is well documented by the COPING Project and other recent studies. Francis gave an example of children with parents on Death Row who stayed in his house for a few days to illustrate the impact the Death Penalty has on children’s mental health. He told us the children woke with night terrors after having nightmares about their parents being hanged. Francis reiterated that the COPING Project although focused on the European nations, its finding have world wide applications even in Uganda. Francis said that the absence of research should not be an excuse for states not to do anything about children of prisoner, never the less the little research that has been done by Joseph Murray, Farrignton, Barnados UK,COPING among others can be relied on to do something about children of prisoners world over.
STEVE GANT reminded the meeting of the importance of presenting solutions to the Ugandan Government as well as highlighting problems. GLORIA SERUWAGI KIMULI emphasised the importance of both “top down” and “bottom up” solutions, and of involving the people who need support in developing solutions. Examples would be peer support groups for all grandparents, not just those supporting children of prisoners, in order to break isolation and to promote integration and inclusion. It would also be beneficial to create opportunities for peer support for children of prisoners who do not have a place at Wells of Hope academy. It was also suggested that when grandparents come to visit their children in prison there is an opportunity to provide peer support groups for them while they are together before they return home. We recognised that not all grandparents had the means to visit their children in prison. Although visiting after a long gap was difficult for families it was agreed that it would generally become easier the more visits were undertaken. STEVE AND GINA GANT told the meeting their plan was to collect grandparents and to take them on visits. “Free, aggressive legal representation” was also seen as a necessity to ensure injustices were rectified.
REBECCA GINSBURG shared her experience of the power of gatherings of families and supporters of incarcerated people. In her work she has seen first-hand how much families value being with others in the same position and not being judged.
We agreed that sharing photos between people in prison and their children and other family members was very much appreciated, and we hoped this could be done for families assisted by Wells of Hope. It is very reassuring for prisoners to see that their children are safe and well cared for. Likewise for children it is good for them to see pictures of their parents confirming they are well despite being in prison.
Houses near prisons where family members can stay would also be very beneficial in view of long distances travelled. FRANCIS SSUUBI considered there was something “magical” about the power of visits and the deep happiness it brought to prisoners and their children. He also paid tribute to the commitment of prison officers in UGANDA’S prison who gave up their offices to provide a larger space for visits to take place. He called upon government or donor agencies to build special visiting rooms to be used by children when they visit their parents in prison.
FRANCIS SSUUBI emphasized the importance of providing practical support to families immediately after a parent has been arrested. For example as soon as they are arrested the money they have been providing for their family is lost. Somebody needs to find out where the money they were holding when they were arrested has gone and to pass it back to their family.
This was a very eventful study week, the next study week will take place from the 23rd – 28th June 2014.
To get a flavour of the day to day account of what happened you can read Rebecca’s lively account available at this link http://www.educationjustice.net/home/2013/08/29/welcome-to-the-new-ejp-blog/
We thank all our participants who came from far to contribute to this year’s study week, many thanks to the Uganda Prison service for allowing us to enter the prisons and for meeting with the participants in their board room, we express our gratitude to the different organisations like National Council for Children, the Uganda Child Rights NGO Network for hosting us at their offices, Dr.Gloria Seruwagi Kimuli from Makerere University and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative for attending the Round table Discussion.