Prison and Pandemic
“I miss my mother.I don’t miss prison”
An eleven year old girl, we’ll call Waridi (Swahili for rose) draws her mother who is serving a life sentence in prison. Her mother is smiling, standing outside against the backdrop of a prison block. She draws her younger brother and herself, playing in the children’s home where both of them now stay after leaving the prison facility where they had accompanied their mother.
For children below the age of 4 who are either born in prison or too young to be separated from their mothers at the time of their sentencing according to the Prisons Act Cap.90, the prison environment is not conducive for their upbringing.
Waridi writes what she can remember “My mum is good when is in prison.She take care of me when I was there.My brother was crying when we visit .I thank God because I come here .I remember when my mother she called by madam and she refuse to go and that is bad.”
She peels back through the layers of her trauma and further writes. “I would not like to stay with my mum.Because I do not want to see her beaten.The people who stay in the prison are bad people.”
According to Dr. George Owino, the lead researcher for the African Early Child Network,the first 1000 days or 3 years of a child’s life are extremely crucial for early childhood development. The social development of a child begins with bonding with the mother.
“If mothers are absent for too long,children may fail to acquire those strong important bonds with society.It is these social bonds that allow children to take part in conventional activities like going to school.”
Ryan Mwenda Ngoyo , a 13 year old child actor who plays the role of Simba in the Zora series that airs on Citizen T.V. strongly believes that even if prison is not an ideal environment to raise a child, children below the age of 4 are better off staying with their mothers. “ Staying with the mum is better.Mothers tend to care more for the child.They know what they are doing.When they are staying with their mothers, the children are more comfortable and more composed,” Ryan adds.
Children attend a church service with their mothers and other inmates
When children leave the prison system, they are reintegrated into society. For 25 years, the NEST Home has focused on Rescue, Rehabilitation and Reintegration of children and mothers in conflict with the law.
Before the next of kin are traced, children like Waridi, spend a considerable time here depending on their case. Without a designated government child officer trained in both family care and institutional care, reintegration in the society takes longer than it should.
Jacinta Achieng, a social worker at the Nest adds that children with traumatic experiences from prison can become deviant mimicking what they have seen. Likewise, they tend to be more clingy compared to children who end up in homes because of abuse who are more withdrawn.
“Children born in prison or are with their parents .They already have a close bond with their mother.For some who are born in prison, they do not understand why you are separating them and why their parents are still in prison.”
The Bangkok Rules of 1990
Visits involving children shall take place in an environment that is conducive to a positive visiting experience, including with regard to staff attitudes, and shall allow open contact between mother and child. Visits involving extended contact with children should be encouraged, where possible.
Rule 52 (3)After children are separated from their mothers and placed with family or relatives or in other alternative care, women prisoners shall be given the maximum possible opportunity and facilities to meet with their children, when it is in the best interests of the children and when public safety is not compromised.
The Constitution Of Kenya
2.A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.
What The Pandemic Took From Us
March 13, 2021, The government imposed a ban on all prison visits after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Kenya .By September 28 2021, 9622 COVID -19 cases had been confirmed in prison facilities and 32 deaths had been recorded(17 staff and 15 inmates).
No visits are allowed in the 107 facilities . These include : prison lines, borstal institutions, and approved schools.
In the 43 female prisons where mothers are allowed to stay with their children, this dealt a devastating blow particularly to the children who had just been reintegrated into society.
“Prison visits were stopped.It really disturbed the children.The schools were closed.They felt that COVID-19 was in prison .The children were traumatized.They kept asking, are our parents safe?We had to assure them that everything was OK,” Jacinta adds.
Even though it is estimated that there are at least 200 children in the 43 female prisons in Kenya (April 2021), the impact of the pandemic on them cannot be understated. The Kenyan government in the National 2021/2022 Budget allocated Ksh. Sh110.6 billion to Policing and Prisons services.The government budgets Ksh. 215 a day for every inmate and Ksh. 410 for every child daily.
The onset of the pandemic and the spread of COVID-19 in the facilities increased an already existing strain on resources such as space where isolation facilities had to be created as well as monetary funding. 6220 inmates have had to be released from both male and female prisons in HomaBay, Kericho, Kisumu, Bungoma,Nakuru,Kisii,Samburu ,Narok, Nairobi and Kericho.
This also means that children who also accompanied their mothers in the facilities were also released.Before the pandemic, according to the Kenya Prisons Service, there were 600 children in the system , but by April 2021 there were at least 200.
Visitation, according to Winnie Guchu, the Cabinet Administrative Secretary, Ministry of Interior is critical as a first step of integration for children before they attain the age of 4 and can leave the prison facilities. A Lifeline of Technology To ensure that the bond between parents and children who left the system is maintained, the Kenya Prisons Service leveraged on the internet and phone services for the prisoners ,to enable them to stay in touch with their families . Zoom and Video Calls were essential. A Lifeline of Vaccines Tuesday September 28, The Ministry of Health and the Kenya Prisons Service officially began the first phase of a Rapid Results Initiative for administering COVID-19 vaccines to all prisons staff and inmates in the country.As more Kenyans are vaccinated and the country opens up, family visits can resume.
Serve and Return
Children bond with their mothers and other inmates at the Naivasha Women’s Prison(Photo: John Gitonga)
Children according to leading psychologists are born with the desire to reach out. “ This is what we call serve and return just like tennis.If you smile at a child, they smile back,”Dr. Owino adds.When the pandemic abates, a resumption of normalcy will help children still in and those who have been in the system regain important social aspects of their lives.
I’ll see my Mother Again
Waridi holds on to hope that she too will have a brighter future, regardless of how blighted her earlier years may be. When she is of age, she will be able to reconcile with her mother.
This story was published with the support of Media Monitoring Africa & UNICEF as part of the lsu Elihle Awards initiative.