Refugee Family in Prison: Challenges faced by children of incarcerated mothers

Refugee Family in Prison: Challenges faced by children of incarcerated mothers

Provision of psychosocial counselling in detention is vital in enabling inmates cope up positively with mental health problems. In my interaction with mothers living with their children in prisons in western Uganda, they shared the ordeal under which children are raised. From their expression, the challenges being faced indicate a huge gap in children’s general wellbeing in detention.  Child protection emphasises “reducing risks to children’s holistic well-being, making children’s rights a reality, and creating an enabling environment that supports children’s positive

development”, which the detention system often neglect.  

Children who grow up with their parents at home are often better placed when it comes to dealing with challenging situations. But many refugee children miss out on the benefits of growing up in a stable family setting. Many end up in a country of asylum with a single parent or as unaccompanied minors, without any relative to support them. Conflict tears families apart, breaking social ties and networks and putting children in a difficult situation. A child is further disadvantaged when his/her one or both parents gets arrested and put in a detention place (prison) for one reason or another because it further splits the family unit. Children who end up with their mothers in detention because they are too young to be detached at the time of arrest, no responsible person to look after them, and are born in prison face the dilemma of serving incarceration at the expense of their mother.

An infant’s attachment to a parent is important for the early development of children (Bowlby 1958), especially when put into consideration of the basic needs hierarchy of physical survival, and safety (Maslow). However, prison environment in which these children have to live in, are by design customized for adult offenders, meant to serve retributive purpose. Most prisons have unfavourable environment (RLP report 2016; mental health of refugees in prison) making them unfit for child growth. They end up becoming the odd part of ‘the family’ (inmates) whose living in sameness is because of their record.   

In the due course of waiting for justice, as in many cases in Ugandan criminal justice system characterised with long remand without trial attributed to case backlogs diminishes hopes for inmates to appear for trial. They have to continue holding under the principal of presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Mounting challenges to accessing justice for inmates create perception of future uncertainties. The psychological consequences - including hopelessness among others – have a negative impact on innocent refugee children.

Therefore, when talking about families of refugees and their plight, let us think of children who are within these families.  Family provides a nurturing environment which promote physical and emotional development.

Psychologists emphasize the contribution of a supportive environment for child growth especially in promoting learning which also shapes behaviour. At tender age, attachment is critical in influencing, and shaping emerging behaviours for subsequent development in a child’s life. As these children grow under the loving care of their mothers in prison, they often get accustomed to prison environment which becomes their home. Thus, the behavior learnt tends to be prison behavior.  

Most prisons in Uganda lack a conducive and child friendly environment, making growing up in detention challenging. For instance, in one of RLP’s routine detention visits, a Prison officer narrated a situation where a female inmate, in the guise of caring for the 3 year old boy of a fellow inmate, took advantage to play with his (boy’s) genitals to fulfil her sexual gratification, thereby raising serious concerns about the child’s safety.

As such, there is need to prioritise access to justice for women living with children in prison, since these children are likely to come in contact with criminals with various undesirable characteristics. But this should also stimulate our thinking about whether the denial of conjugal rights in detention risks seeing manifestation of sexual desires and practice in prison take different forms. 

The situation is exacerbated for refugee children who in addition to being in prison environment, have to live and interact with mothers who carry psychological burdens of traumatising past experiences. The psychological stress from the prison environment increases the pre-existing distress of the mother. This in turn affects a child in many ways, thus hindering healthy socialisation.  Unfortunately, self-care techniques to relieve mothers of such children and other inmates from distress are minimal due to space, particularly given the overcrowding which is characteristic of most prisons and limits child play and mothers from exercising.

Nurturing children in prison requires special arrangements like day care centre such as the one in Luzira prison, which most upcountry detention places lack. Lack of such special arrangements puts prison officers in a compromising position and leads to most refugee children being handed to the care of relatives or caregivers, if there happen to be any. With the numerous challenges in refugee settlement, the wellbeing of these children is often at stake.  In instances where an inmate’s child is given to caretaker (relative living in refugee settlement), the wellbeing of such children is uncertain. Unfortunately, no visits are planned for such mothers and child to meet, attributed to many factors including inability by the caretaker to afford financial means to cater for transport fare to prisons.

When pondering about education of children, most prisons don’t provide for such arrangement, other than serving punitive, and or rehabilitative purpose for adults. In this contemporary world, educating a child is educating the future. A lot is being done to promote elementary level education to strengthen early childhood development.

Similarly there’s little or no arrangement for access to specialised health-related needs for children in prisons, more so that they depend on government health care services which are ill equipped with drugs, and they end up being referred to buy medicines without consideration to their financial capacity,  a reality which their mothers have to bear with when a child falls sick.   

The lack of proper statistics of children living with their mothers in prison, let alone refugee children, compound the situation which poses a big challenge in planning, decision making and service delivery.  Without proper action, the issues of children (refugee) living with their mothers in prison will remain a hidden challenging fact hindering child growth and development.

This therefore calls for attention of different stakeholders to work towards promoting the wellbeing of children in detention places. 

By Ojok David Stephen, Field Office Coordinator- Hoima, under the Access to Justice Programme.


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