About 24 children are locked up in the seven prisons of Lira, Oyam, Kole, Alebtong, Otuke, Apac and Dokolo districts with their only crime being born to mothers suspected of breaking the law.
Currently, there are 228 female inmates in the seven prisons. In Lira, 12 children are incarcerated with their mothers.
Some of the confined children were born in prisons and their definition of home is the congestion, stench and dark corridors that greet them at the detention facilities.
With such an environment, many have grown up knowing that they can only relate with people putting on yellow uniforms or those clad in prisoners attires.
However, there a number of challenges associated with children growing up in prisons’ environment, some of which create an everlasting impact in their lives.
Winnie, a toddler, started living in Lira Women prison at the age of one year.
The environment she was accustomed to for the two years was encircled by prisoners she had been presented to by her mother.
For the child to adapt to the environment, she had to start relating to her mother’s friends, who always cared for her whenever the mother was out for work.
Now aged three, Winnie can only relate well with those wearing yellow clothes because they have always provided a shoulder to lean. In fact, yellow has now become her favorite colour.
Before she was taken to live outside prison, Winnie lived with her parents and relatives who have been incarcerated at Lira Women and Lira Main prisons.
The family members were remanded to prisons by the High Court in Lira over the alleged murder that occurred in their home village.
A social worker at Lira Women Prison who is familiar with Winnie’s social behaviour and story told this newspaper that the child had started misbehaving. “She started learning bad manners. She could behave like the elderly,” Ms Grace Miriam Amongi told Daily Monitor.
While Winnie has been resettled with her grandmother at Apala Sub-county in Alebtong District, the rest of the family members are still facing trial at the High Court in Lira, on charges of murder.
This opens a bigger debate on whether Ugandan prisons have the capacity to accommodate children. Yet argument for keeping them in prisons is that the children are allowed enough time to bond with their mothers.
Recently, Daily Monitor visited the various facilities and found no day care centres set up for the babies or even special facilities for mothers.
Inmates with children have neither the toys nor energy to play because of the challenges they are faced with.
“As they are here, they may not have enough clothing. Some organisation has been supporting us once in a while but the assistance is inadequate,” said Ms Amongi.
Lack of proper diet is also another challenge the children face. They are accustomed to feeding on beans and mingled maize flour that is served in the afternoon and evenings.
Currently, babies share blankets donated to their mothers by Uganda Prisons Services .
The mattresses that were donated to the children by charity organisations in recent years have all worn out. They sleep without mosquito nets.
Ms Amongi says if children are to grow healthy, they need to sleep under mosquito nets. She adds that for imprisoned mothers, one of the greatest punishments incarceration carries with is separation from their children.
With such hard conditions, some jailed mothers have opted to keep their babies outside prisons.
An inmate who talked to this newspaper on condition of anonymity said not knowing what is happening to her daughter hurts her the most.
“I have been on remand for two years, on charges of murder, but what is happening to my child is a great concern,” she said.
Some critics however argue in favour of co-detention in which they pointed out that this arrangement “provides an opportunity for the mother and child to develop a close emotional attachment or to uphold the link that they have already shaped.”
In France and Switzerland, co-detention programmes have been organised to permit mother and child to be together for a two to three year period in a special prison section adapted to children’s needs and providing an enriched prison milieu and opportunities to experience life outside prison. This is something that Uganda as a nation is also looking forward to adapting.
Mr Ronald Rwankangi, the country director of Advance Afrika, recently told Daily Monitor that many of the problems associated with either separation from the parent or co-detention could be avoided by provision of some form of community-based sentencing, instead of prison-based incarceration.
Human rights activists note that there are several negative aspects to prison-based co-detention. These include restrictions on the child’s freedom and the impoverished environment of the prison institution, which may lead to some impairment of young children’s cognitive development.
Uganda Prisons Service senior welfare and rehabilitation officer, Mr Adams Hasiyo, said if recidivism can be reduced, children will be spared the trauma of repeated separation, which, in turn, will improve their psychological change.
The spokesperson of Uganda Prisons Service, Mr Frank Baine, said the government has innovative programmes designed to allow the mother and child to remain together during some portion of the incarceration period.
Mr Baine explained that the money allocated to one prisoner in every financial year’s budget is equivalent to the money allotted to a child.
“We have established seven day care centres out of 21 female prisons in the country to ease the conditions of children who live with their mothers,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday, further explaining that such facility is constructed in prisons which have huge population of female inmates. He said female prisons have been given cows to provide milk children.
The prison population in Uganda is said to be growing at a 10 per cent rate annually. Currently, there are 284 children living with their mothers in 21 female prisons, while there are more than 45,000 inmates in all the 247 establishments.
To respond to the increasing need, Advance Afrika with support from European Union and Caritas Switzerland is also establishing a day care centre in Gulu District.