Prison babies in limbo

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Prison is not a particularly savoury place to be, even for hardened criminals. It is an even more terrible and hostile environment for a child to be born and grow up in. With no clear policies protecting and safe-guarding their well-being, such children are left with no option but to wallow in jail with their incarcerated mothers.

According to Lesotho Correctional Services’ public relations officer Superintendent Neo Mopeli, Lesotho does not have laws that protect or address the plight of children born to imprisoned mothers.

“The laws only focus on the parent facing jail time. They make no provision for their baby. If a convict is pregnant, she still goes to prison and will give birth inside.

“At the moment we have about eight women who gave birth in different prisons around the country. Their kids are now between the ages of three months to a year old,” Mopeli said.

There are no nurseries in prison. A prison nursery is a section of a prison that houses incarcerated mothers and their very young children. Prison nurseries are not common in Lesotho’s correctional facilities, and Mopeli says children born in jail are only allowed to be in prison with their mothers until they are two years old.

“Since there is no provision for such children, it is not uncommon that they have no nappies or food, forcing us to solicit funds elsewhere in order to cater for them. In cases where a mother is sentenced soon after giving birth, she serves her sentence with the child. We do not separate the child from its mother for two years. The reason we choose to release the children when they are two years old is because at that age they start being aware of their surroundings. We do our best to release the children that early because we do not want the environment here to affect them physiologically.

“We contact their families or fathers when we release these children but it is in rare cases where they are well received back home. However, due to the absence of relevant laws on these kinds of children, we do not follow up to check on their wellbeing once they are released to the care of relatives. Our only concern is the mothers who are prisoners, not the children.

“There are instances when prison guards contribute from their own pockets to buy the children nappies, both washable and disposable.,” he explained.

Mopeli added to avoid female inmates falling pregnant, they are assigned female warders at all times, and have little or no contact with male inmates or warders.

Local association founded by survivors of domestic violence and provides counselling to both women and children who are themselves victims of abuse, SheHive, conceded that it is in very rare cases that they interact with female ex-inmates.

SheHive social worker Mamello Pitso, told theReporter that the only time they get to provide counselling to ex-inmates is that the latter come forward and approach the association.

She said when they do have to deal with such cases they are guided by the principle of attaching importance to the welfare of both mothers and children, by ensuring the women have a good relationship with their children.

“We had a case recently of an ex-inmate that we are still trying to reconnect with her children. The sad reality is when a mother goes to prison, it tends to create a rift between her and her children. We cannot change the laws that govern prisons, but the least we can do is help ensure a smooth reintegration and rehabilitation, in a manner that makes it easier for the mothers to continue their motherly duties,” Pitso explained.

Crime Prevention, Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Ex-Offenders Association (CRROA) president Nkalimeng Mothobi says pregnant or nursing mothers endure a tough time in jail because there is no budget to cater for their special needs.

He noted that Correctional Services does try to meet the needs of children born in prison but it is not enough.

“Even now when they are inside we do try, with the help of our sponsors, to lend a hand with baby milk, clothes and toys. As much as we work specifically with rehabilitating former inmates, we start the process while they still behind bars, to try and encourage them not to repeat the same offences that landed them in prison in the first place; we also want to make sure they do not end up suffering from,” Mothobi said.

He indicated that they would like to see attention being paid to the needs of children that are born and grow up in prison, so they do not feel neglected. He also urged Correctional Services to consider introducing nurseries within their facilities, to make them more child-friendly.

According to a Lesotho national human rights report submitted to the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review working group in Geneva, Switzerland, last week, the country needs to accord special treatment to vulnerable groups in correctional centres.

It says these groups include women, pregnant women and women with children. Children born in prison are allowed to stay with their mother until they are two years. The same condition applies to mothers who are detained before their children are two years of age.

The report further notes that there have also been established anti-retroviral centres with full time clinical staff. Inmates and staff also receive training on HIV/AIDS issues. Inmates also receive HIV testing and counselling services. Inmates living with HIV are put on ARV treatment.

“The department developed educational programmes, literacy and numeracy, formal and non-formal education including life skills. Recreational programmes which include music, cultural dances, and drama and sport activities have also been introduced in detention facilities.

“In order to address the challenge of overcrowding in detention facilities, there has been establishment of restorative justice system and diversion programmes for minor and non-violent offences. Courts also opt to impose non-custodial sentences including community service. Inmates who have been detained for a long time are also released on parole on account of good behaviour,” the report states.

It says there has been established within the Lesotho Correctional Service, the Legal and Human Rights Unit which is tasked to train and empower both inmates and staff on human rights issues.

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