Written by Audrey Masitsa

It’s a new dawn for children of incarcerated mothers as the Kenya Prisons Service recently launched the Policy on Care of Children of Incarcerated Mothers. The policy provides a framework for creating a conducive environment for the realization of the best interests of children 0-4 years accompanying their mothers to prison, those left at home or under alternative care and for expectant mothers

In Kenya, children aged between 0 and 4 years are permitted to accompany their mothers to prison. This is because the formative years of a child’s life (0-4 years) are very critical in shaping a child’s wholistic development. These years build the foundation for their future wellbeing. It is therefore important that the child’s rights to health care and nutrition; protection from harm, security, and safety; opportunities for early learning; and responsive caregiving are observed.

It is this provision that saw Joe* accompany his mother to prison at just 20 months old. The last of four children, Joe bore witness to a raging crowd that threatened to lynch his mother. Her crime? She was accused of killing his [Joe’s] father and trying to conceal the crime. When the police arrived at the family’s home, Joe’s mother had two options: to let the police arrest her or stay at the mercy of the crowd baying for blood. She opted for the former handing her baby son to a nearby officer before entering the police vehicle. Mother and son were separated for eight hours before he was placed back in his mother’s hands, having cried himself hoarse, glassy eyed hungry and with a soiled diaper.

Joe’s mother was later arraigned and then taken to capital remand. When they arrived in prison, Joe barely spoke a word. He became known as the boy who doesn’t speak. For more than a year he uttered not a word. He would not cry nor play with the other children. Despite the efforts of the prison officers and nannies and his mother to engage him, seeing the crowd baying for his mother’s blood coupled with the new prison environment, left poor Joe traumatized.

In Kenya, children aged 0-4 years are permitted to accompany their mothers to prison

While Joe has now been released into the custody of his relatives, the effects of his early years continue to dog him.

This is not an isolated case. Even as the government permits children under four years to accompany their mothers to prison, Kenyan prisons have lacked provisions with which to care for these children.

The current situation

Most prisons lack an age-appropriate diet. Children eat what their mothers have been served, often cold and this compromises their children’s health. Most have no daycare centres reducing the children’s access to play and early learning opportunities. They also lack budget allocation from the national government leaving these children dependent on donations from well-wishers to meet their needs of baby items such as diapers and clothing.

When it comes to living spaces, children and their mothers are housed among the general population exposing them to harmful language and fights. Their caregivers lack adequate training in responsive caregiving which is essential in providing for each child’s developmental, emotional and other needs. Thus, they aren’t adequately equipped to respond to the children’s cues and signals in a timely and appropriate manner.

The policy provides a framework for creating a conducive environment for the realization of the best interests of children 0-4 years accompanying their mothers to prison

Upon exiting the prison, there’s no structured reintegration process. There’s no family and home assessment done to determine the type of environment the child will be getting into. Little to no psycho-social support is provided to the mother being separated from the child, the child themselves and the family on the outside.

At Clean Start we work with children accompanying their mothers to prison to ensure positive outcomes in the child’s later years by intervening in the early years. Thanks to the Kenya Prisons Service and other stakeholders, we have been able to make some of the interventions that continue to improve the lives of these children. These include providing responsive caregiving training to the prison nannies and officers. We also collect donations of baby items such as clothes, diapers and toys and learning materials which we distribute to prisons around the country. We have established a kiddies’ kitchen in Nyeri Women Prison to enable the preparation for age-specific, hot, timely meals. We also walk with children of incarcerated mothers upon their exit providing the mother, family on the outside and child with psycho-social support.

Policy stipulations

This new childcare policy, launched by Interior Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiang’i at the Prisons Staff Training College in Ruiru, will provide a much-needed push in the uptake of these interventions and more, seeing to it that the needs of children of incarcerated mothers are met.

It’s implementation is linked to other national policy guidelines including the Sessional paper No.1 of 2005 from the education sector which touches on the policy framework for education that recommended the development of a comprehensive ECD framework and Service Standard Guidelines.

Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government Cabinet Secretary Dr. Fred Matian’gi presided over the launch of the Childcare policy

Some of the stipulations defined in the policy include the provision of safe and secure living spaces for the mother and baby, separate from the general prison population. Currently, children of incarcerated mothers are housed with other inmates exposing them to fights and adult language. The policy points to the need for sleeping spaces with appropriate furniture and child-friendly facilities like bathrooms, toilets and eating areas.

It calls for access to Maternal Neonatal Child Health Services for pregnant and nursing mothers and infants. This will ensure expectant mothers and children have access to specialized health care 24 hours a day. It also recommends the establishment of mental health and psychosocial programs as well as building the capacity of caregivers in prison on childhood trauma assessment, screening and basic counselling.

Provision of adequate nutrition for breastfeeding mothers and a child-appropriate diet will be key in supporting exclusive breastfeeding of new mothers and transition and complementary feeding for children, feeding of sick children and management of nutrition-based illnesses such as malnutrition. The policy also stipulates the establishment of a kitchen garden and separate and fully-fledged kiddie kitchen.

The establishment of fully-equipped early learning and play facilities, providing for play materials and play and learning programmes and the recruitment of staff trained in early childhood development will see to it that the children’s wholistic early learning needs are met.

Clean Start Founder & CEO Teresa Njoroge (Right) with Children & Girls Program Officer Terry Bii during the Childcare Policy launch

When it comes to dealing with children’s mental well being, the policy calls for ensuring a child-specific psychosocial program is made available to the children of incarcerated mothers. Children should also be assessed regularly by trained child psychologists. It also stipulates the building of capacity for psychosocial first aid.

Training in responsive caregiving is essential to understanding the child’s developmental, emotional and other needs in a timely manner, the policy lays down, adding that this should be done for the mothers, caregivers and prison staff.

To counter the lack of a clearly defined reintegration process for children exiting prisons, the policy stipulates that reintegration guidelines and procedures shall be developed including the provision of counselling services for the mother, child and receiving caregiver before discharge. It also calls for the establishment of a child reception and discharge board where there was previously none as well as the promotion of visitation with alternative caregiver to facilitate bonding.

The policy also requires the government to provide facilities for the registration of births.

We hope that with this policy and the necessary framework in place, the dire situation of children accompanying their mothers in prison will be rectified, giving these children a chance at positive outcomes in their later years.