Photo: Alfredo Caliz / Panos
They make you feel guilty for just being there. They search you and make you take your shoes off and you feel ashamed.’ Like 14-year-old Clare, who is visiting a member of her family in prison, thousands of children throughout the world are being punished even though they have committed no crime.
The issue of the rights of prisoners’ children has not been properly addressed by any international body, and by very few national governments. According to the British support organization Action for Prisoners’ Families (APF), imprisonment can cause long-term harm to the children of offenders.
Having a parent in prison increases the chances of a child offending later on. Daniel, in France, was only five when his father was jailed for setting fire to the local police station. ‘When I grow up, I am going to do the same,’ he promises. His visits to his father’s prison – where the atmosphere was intimidating and far from child-friendly – were disturbing for him, according to his mother.
‘Daniel was depressed for a couple of months after visiting his father for the first time, and my daughter started to show new behavioural problems.’ No telephone contact was possible and, with visiting hours limited to weekdays, the children could only visit during school holidays. When Daniel’s father came home, his children hardly knew him.
When it is the mother who is imprisoned, children are more likely to be taken into the care of the authorities. Globally, a large proportion of women in prison are mothers of young children. Often they were already lone parents, or are abandoned by their partners as a result of their imprisonment, leaving the children without anyone to look after them. The small number of women’s facilities in jails exacerbates the problem, increasing the distances children need to travel to visit their mothers.
Sometimes children may find themselves in prison with a parent, especially where there is no social care available, and if the extended family cannot help. UNICEF advises that infants should be accommodated with their mothers where possible as this is less traumatic than separation, but the prison environment is a totally unnatural one for a child.
In Argentina, children under three are incarcerated with their mothers. According to Rasjid Cesar of Tierraviva, a pioneering organization working with women incarcerated with their children in Buenos Aires, human rights abuses of both mothers and their offspring are rife. In one case, a pregnant inmate’s baby – which could have been saved by a caesarean delivery – was stillborn because the authorities took so long in deciding whether to send the woman to hospital.
Mothers may be driven to desperate measures for the sake of their children. ‘Two women went on hunger strike,’ reports Cesar. ‘One wanted to be taken to her village to see her children. Another wanted fresh milk for her daughter. In the end we supplied it ourselves.’
Although non-governmental organizations like APF and Tierraviva are carrying out valuable work to improve the lives of those affected, they insist that governments should be doing more to safeguard children and their families. Many countries have no reliable records of the number of children with parents in prison and no guidelines as to how to take their needs into account.