Children standing behind bars in a Jail.
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Children Born Behind The Bars

Every year thousands of babies are born to imprisoned mothers who are raised in jails and called home. They are imprisoned and live in a confined environment without ever committing any crime. Why these unfortunate children are destined to live in jails with their innocence being in danger from unforeseen damages to their hearts and minds in correctional facilities.

Policymakers, critics of the jail environment, and advocates of the mother-children bond mostly ponder upon the question- that if the children and mother remain together for the early cognitive and physical development of children or they should be separated as and when practical and children are placed in separate facilities, given to foster care or adoption. 
This question has become even more important since the number of women prisoners have increased over the last many decades.

Critics of prison nurseries argue why the children are forced into an environment of restrictions and deprivation. 

Also Read: Children in Conflict Suffering Grave Violations

The social environment in which a child is born and raised has a lot more impact on the future social integration of the child and his or her development. Human is a product of their social environment and their actions and behaviour is a reflection of this socialization process.

But prison children have to face a social environment full of inhuman treatment, torture and lack of basic facilities like adequate food, sanitation, clean water, and proper bedding.

UNICEF says that such an environment led to malnutrition, poor development and morbidity among children accompanying their mother in prison.

United Nations minimum Rules (Bangkok Rules) for the treatment of women prisoners and non-custodial measures for women offenders (2010) stipulate that mothers and children in prison be given extra attention. Lactating mothers and nursing children are given nutritious food free of cost. These rules make provisions for healthcare and human treatment also.

So, the children of parents in conflict with the law can be safeguarded according to the Bangkok Rules and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In many circumstances, children’s interests must be the priority. But studies show that in current prison systems, such priorities are not set and these children who did not commit any crime are forced to bear social, psychological and educational challenges and human rights violations. They are pre-exposed to a criminal environment and criminals at such a tender age which potentially introduces them to crime.

Such a negative influence and thought process can lead to the derailment of cognitive, mental, behavioural and social skills of such children.

Global Facts About the Situation

Governments, NGOs and society at large often are concerned about the children and what would happen to them after their sole caretaker would go to jail. 

Numbers in various global statistics and reports also show that the situation is grave.

A study conducted by the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO), an NGO that participates in various United Nations activities reported that around 800,000 children have separated from their caregivers each year in the European Union alone.

The number of children with a mother in prison doubled between 1991 to 2007.

Incarcerated mothers are often the primary or sole caretakers of their children and as a result, most prisons allow children to live with their mothers in jail. The majority of countries imposed limits on the admission of such children with their incarcerated parents and the length of stay is also defined. This limit varies for different countries. After the completion of the stay limit children may be sent for foster care, orphanages or to a responsible relative who is willing to assume responsibility.

Like the variation in admission requirements, countries vary greatly in provisions of medical care, food and sanitation facilities, and residential arrangements.

Gap Between Policy Formulation and Its Implementation

According to the Global Prison Trends, 2020 report by the international non-governmental organisation (INGO), Penal Reform International, an estimated 19,000 children are living in jails globally with their primary caregivers usually mothers where most of such mothers in jails are undertrial. 

The challenge stems from the fact that traditionally the prisons are made to suit the needs of the men, said an officer of INGO Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

Women in Prisons, India report, 2018 of the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) reported that largely the provisions for the welfare of women inmates are not implemented and women face problems while living in jails.

Children are typically very few and as a result, it becomes economically not viable to have their dedicated infrastructure, said a professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), India.

Such children often never get a normal environment as they face custodial and negative environments that affect negatively their later socialization process.

Proper and timely implementation of guidelines for the welfare of children behind the bars largely depends on prison administration. Jail authority must be provided with sufficient funds and staff to implement the welfarist programmes for children and their mothers in jail.

What Should Happen When Children are Born or Raised in Prisons?

Policymakers and law enforcement agencies around the world can consider the best interests of children and pregnant imprisoned mothers while setting up the facilities for the development, well-being, and social integration of children behind the bars.

  1. Mothers of such children should be treated with dignity in front of their children even though they are charged with criminal offences.
  1. Prison authorities can recruit qualified teachers and psychologists to teach and train children toward a productive and positive life.
  1. Authorities should provide age-appropriate books, teaching and learning tools with a safe and conducive environment.
  1. Brutal punishments should not be carried out in front of children to protect them from mental harassment, anxiety and depression.
  1. Balances and nutritious diets can be provided to children.
  1. If incarcerated caretaker earns in prison then they should be allowed to buy edibles for their children in jail.
  1. Prison administration should ensure that children living with their mothers do not feel like offenders and facilities are customized towards the specific needs of child care.
  1. Children can be separated from their caregiver in jail after an assessment of their best interest rather than a fixed approach in terms of stay length and age limit as we witness in the countries of Switzerland and Sweden where the situation is being analyzed for each different case.
  1. Special residential units can be provided for mothers accompanying their children as being done in Norway and Australia.

Each child matters and it is his or her human and basic right to have a life of freedom with dignity. After all, children are the future and can become a resource or a burden depending on our given nurture and care.