It is 2pm when we arrive at Moroto Prison. The Inter-Religious Council band awakens the silent northeast regional jail centre. We are ushered into the newly built visiting room where we meet hundreds of male inmates seated, waiting to receive us.
It is September 21, a day designated by Inter-Religious Council to pray, eat and interact with inmates every year, prior to September 22, a UN marked day for peace (this year’s celebrations were held in Moroto).
A few minutes after we arrive, we are joined by female inmates. A quick survey shows that four out of 10 are carrying a baby.
When I stretch my hand to carry Winnie, a two-year-old baby, she cries out loud, forcing me to inquire from her mother why the little one is crying so desperately.
“The baby is not used to visitors. She is used to only two colours, yellow [inmates’ uniform] and khaki [prisons uniform]. She has been here since she was born,” the inmate who prefers not to be named says. Winnie’s mother was convicted of arson.
I turn around and talk to another female inmate who says serving her sentence wouldn’t be a problem but feeding and living in a crowded place with poor sanitation, with a child is what worries her.
“Sometimes our babies go without food. They suckle from morning to evening. There is no privacy and we generally live in an unhygienic place not fit for babies,” she says with a sad expression written in her hollow eyes.
Asked if they are made to work on farms, the inmates said they are saved by the harsh conditions in the area and therefore don’t dig. In Karamonja, the weather is usually dry which hinders digging. The main economic activities in the area are cattle keeping and small scale gold mining.
The challenge though is the school-going children don’t study as they are full time in the prison cells with their mothers, unlike in Luzira prison, where babies incarcerated with their mothers have a day care centre.
The two mothers are a few of many who wanted to talk to us but failed due to the language barrier.
Every month, five to six mothers are jailed with their babies. Some give birth in prison.
All these constitute about 44 per cent of female inmates that have children aged between a few days to six years in Moroto prison. The babies are incarcerated with their mothers throughout the jail sentence.
Backlog worsens the situation
Majority of the women in Moroto prisons are charged with arson, murder and assault. Many are on remand waiting their sentences.
With an immense case backlog which normally takes months or years, even innocent mothers are detained together with their children for long and they end up being subjected to hard conditions in prisons. Years later, some of these women are acquitted, a bittersweet experience as one gains their freedom but looks back on years that have been wasted.
William Awanyi, the OC Moroto Prisons admits that the facility has enormous challenges in handling mothers who are jailed with their babies but says that some NGOs have come to help.
“We have to squeeze. We are constrained with many children in the facility. Majority depends on their mothers’ milk but we get some help from NGOs which supplement on their feeding,” he says.
Although Awanyi is noncommittal on how much the facility receives from the central government, insiders say they are given Shs200,000 a month.
Many crimes committed by women
The OC attributes the high number of children in the prison to the high crime rate by women in the region and inmates’ relatives who don’t pick children due to poverty and negligence.
“We always call their relatives to pick the inmates’ children but they don’t come. Even when we take them, they are brought back.
“The culture here is that some don’t want to care for inmates’ children,” he said.
He also says that the inmates who are used to manyattas have a hard time adopting to iron sheets houses with a cemented floor, as majority think living in such houses will erode their culture. The Prisons Act criminalises accommodation of minors above 18 months in prison but a visit to up-country jail houses reveals the opposite.
Efforts to speak to Dr Johnson Byabashaija, the Commissioner General of prisons were futile as he did not pick up our repeated calls.
The prisons’ spokesperson, Mr Frank Baine was reportedly out of the country.
A UN Quaker research on children incarcerations reveals that in future, the victims are most likely to deal with confusion, shame and anger. Also, children in prisons are at risk of tetanus, malnutrition, trauma and TB from infected inmates.
Father Silvester Arinaitwe, the secretary general of the Inter-religious Council of Uganda says the situation in prisons should be that which allows transformation and support of the inmates’ relatives at home.
He says the council has also trained psycho-social specialists in the prison to give guidance to both the mothers and their children but the regional prisons commander, George Lenga says the two trained specialists are too few to handle the need in the facility.
“I would request that Father you train more specialists as the need is enormous. Most of our askaris are not trained to care for inmates psychologically,” Lenga said.
There is clearly a need for facilities within which to keep children of inmates because otherwise, they end up wasting the first precious years of their lives and being traumatised by the experience.