DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka
THEY have done nothing wrong to earn a prison sentence but they have been subjected to a harsh life in prison. This is the story of children born to women in prison.
At Lusaka Central Correctional Facility, popularly known as Chimbokaila, there are seven children, all aged below two.
Behind the high whitewashed walls, mothers dressed in pink dresses carry babies around the yard.
Some toddlers playfully move hand-in-hand with their mothers, while others play in the open space within the prison walls.
It is a neat and clean environment but still does not offer an environment fit for children to grow in.
These children find themselves behind these walls because of circumstances and that is why the law refers to them as circumstantial children.
Currently, there are seven children in the Lusaka Central Correctional Facility because of the crimes of their mothers.
Matron Mainga, 35, is in prison with her 11-month-old baby.
She was jailed in Livingstone for illegal possession of ivory, but she was later transferred to Lusaka because her son has a medical condition that needs attention.
“My son was born in prison. I was arrested when I was three months pregnant. But a few days after he was born, he could not defecate and his tummy started swelling. I have been sentenced to five years imprisonment for being found in possession of ivory,” she says.
She narrates how she found herself and her baby in prison.
“On the fateful day, I was at home in Sikaunzwe, Kasaya area in Kazungula district when I saw security men coming. They came home and asked for my husband and I told them he was not home. They told me that they had information that my husband had pieces of ivory. They pushed themselves into my home and found pieces of ivory. I told them to wait for my husband but they refused and instead picked me for questioning, and since then, I have never returned home,” Ms Mainga says.
Ms Mainga is originally from Nalisa Village in Sesheke district. She describes her stay in jail with her son as the hardest thing ever in her life.
Her son now has a tube inserted in his tummy to help him pass stool.
Ms Mainga had to fight for her son’s right to treatment.
When she was in Livingstone, she refused to enter her cell until her son was attended to.
“I told the officer on duty that I will not enter the cells until I am attended to. Then I was allowed to take my son to Livingstone General Hospital, where he was operated on. The hospital staff managed to open his tummy and made a provisional point for passing stool,” she says.
She found herself at Lusaka Central Correctional Facility after medical staff referred her son to the University Teaching Hospital for specialist treatment.
For Ms Mainga, who has two other children, boys aged six and eight, entrusting her baby to relatives outside the jail walls was unthinkable.
“Feeding children in prison is a challenge because they have special dietary needs which the prison authorities cannot afford. But again allowing my son to live with relatives is harder. I know life is hard out there and giving people an extra responsibility is hard with the current economic challenges,” Ms Mainga says.
Incarcerated mothers like Ms Mainga are often the primary or sole caretakers of their children, and sometimes the children are too young to be separated while others have delicate conditions like Ms Mainga’s son.
As such, the Zambian law allows children to temporarily reside in prison with their mothers.
The Zambian Constitution, Article 56 of the Prisons Act (Cap 97), says the infant of a woman prisoner may be received into the prison with its mother and may be supplied with clothing and necessities at public expense.
The Prisons Act further says when the child is four years and if the officer-in-charge is satisfied that there are relatives or friends of the child who are able and willing to support it, he can hand it over to the relatives or an approved child welfare.
Since this law is not cast in stone, some children are left to remain with their mother for a longer time.
Another inmate at Lusaka Central Correctional Facility, Prudence Mpalanga, 37, of Garden Chilulu in Lusaka, says giving up her one-year-old daughter to the relatives will affect her stay in prison.
Ms Mpalanga is in prison with her husband for aggravated robbery after they were arrested in 2015.
At the time of her imprisonment, she was five months pregnant and she later gave birth to a baby girl whilst in prison.
“She is the only friend I have here. I spend all my time with her. I would rather she is with me here because this way, she gives me comfort. I am able to see what she has eaten and I know her current condition,” Ms Mpalanga says.
But the biggest challenge for prison authorities is to supply the children’s needs. Zambia Correctional Service commissioner general Percy Chato acknowledged that providing the needs of circumstantial children has not been easy for the prisons authority.
“Children’s needs are different from their mothers’ in everything, be it dietary or clothing. We expect a change once the paradigm shift, the process of repealing and replacing the Prisons Act (Cap 97 of the laws of Zambia), is done. We have faith-based organisations and non-governmental organisations that supplement very often,” Mr Chato says.
Mr Chato says currently, once the child reaches four years, it is given to a relative who is able and willing to assume responsibility, and in the absence of such an option, it is sent to a foster home or orphanages.
Currently, there are 82 children under the age of four living within the confines of prisons country-wide with their mothers, who are serving various jail sentences.
Just like any person, each child has the right to particular protection and is entitled to a safe and stimulating environment of growth to develop in a balanced way.
The only hope for the ‘incarcerated’ children lies in the repeal and replacement of the current Prisons Act.
For now, the issue of what happens to a child when a parent is incarcerated is one that needs to receive the attention of Government and civil society organisations.
And certainly, the scale of the issue is not small.