This sounds strange but that is the fate of children whose mothers are either on remand or have been convicted and are serving jail terms. Some of these children accompany their mothers or are born in prison.
Therefore, as their mothers serve their sentences or await their trials, so too do their little children, enduring the life of the accused without ever having flouted any law.
Visiting Malukhu Prison in Mbale municipality in late April was eye opening. Eight children were found living with the 35 female inmates at the detention facility.
This scenario is not only in Mbale but in all prisons across the country. Political prisoners who have easy access to the media upon their release have highlighted this. But are children supposed to be in prison? According to Margaret Obonyo, the officer in charge of the female wing at Malukhu Prison, the law permits it to an extent. “Our law of prisons says once a child reaches one year and eight months, it should be taken back home. But some are not able to go home,” Ms Obonyo told members of the Rotary Club of Mbale who visited inmates on April 28.
This is because the children are deemed too young to be separated from their mothers, especially when they are still breast feeding at the time of their mother’s arrest. But regardless of the circumstances, to some mothers staying with their children in prison is the best option available.
“For example that one,” Ms Obonyo said pointing at a child seated on her mother’s lap, “she is now two years and a month. The mother comes from Karamoja region and she tells me her people are on the run because of cattle rustlers. Even the husband came here a month ago and when I informed him of the law, he told me he feels the child is more secure here than outside. So that is really the dilemma we are in.”
In an emotion-filled tone, one of the inmates Grace Namwano, told the visiting rotarians, “As you know prison food is not the best. So, these little ones are suffering,” in reference to the eight children living with their mothers.
Ms Namwano’s lamenting brings into perspective an obvious scientific fact as a Cambodian study of children in prisons indicated that the children face nutritional deficiencies.
“Though children often share the allotted prison food with their mothers, extra food is not distributed to prisoners with dependents. The food provided typically lacks ample nutrients for adults, let alone for growing children. When split among two or three or even more people, the nutritional value is depleted even further,” reads in part the study by the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO).
That most of the children staying with female inmates are below the age of five, according to the LICADHO study, living in prisons also presents a threat to children’s safety. “The potential for maltreatment at the hands of other prisoners or prison staff is ever-present, particularly in facilities where sex offenders may be held,” the study notes.
“The effects on children’s development are social and psychological as well as physical. Without access to standard education, children are at a disadvantage in terms of intellectual development.”
Ms Obonyo concurs with the LICADHO study observations. “I think some of these children are very disadvantaged because they are already learning certain bad things that they are not supposed to know now. And a young brain growing, once it captures something it will be very difficult for that brain to wipe it off.”
The plight of children in Ugandan prisons is not an isolated affair. The issue has been raised at international level and commitments have been made by the government, promising to improve the situation but this has not happened.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on September 15, 2005 reviewed the second periodic report of Uganda on how the country is implementing the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
One of the questions put to the Ugandan delegation led by then Gender, Labour and Social Development Minister Zoe Bakoko Bakoru was on the figures of babies living with their mothers in detention, and what measures were being taken to redress the plight of the children.
While responding to the experts questions, Ms Bakoko did not answer the question on children living with their mothers in prison. Perhaps this explains why the situation remains unchanged.
However, all that is happening to these children in total contravention of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. The Convention covers all the rights that aim at the wellbeing of the child. It is worth noting that while parents are mainly accountable for their children’s well-being according to Article 18.1, CRC articles reinforce the State’s duty to ensure adequate care and protection of children in unusual circumstances.