Situation on Children
with incarcerated parents in Uganda!

Francis Ssuubi, Founder Wells of Hope Ministries

Children of imprisoned parents are often described as the forgotten victims of  imprisonment.

Behind each father and mother in prison there is a string of children whose lives had depended on them solely for all the basic needs like food, clothes, housing, Education, grooming and protection. Upon imprisonment of their parents, the children become vulnerable in the community in  every sense one can think of and this results in their rights, needs and best interests being overlooked or actively damaged.

Parental imprisonment effects are rarely considered in criminal justice processes, which instead focus on determining individual guilt or innocence and punishing  lawbreakers. There is a failure considering or consulting children of imprisoned parents at all stages of the criminal justice process – from arrest to trial to imprisonment to release to rehabilitation into the community .

Parental imprisonment can cause many problems for the family left behind, including difficulty organizing childcare, loss of family income, trouble maintaining contact with the imprisoned parent, stigma at home, at school and neighborhood. Separation because of parental imprisonment might be particularly harmful to the children because it is often unexpected, sometimes violent and often unexplained. Children are severely restricted in their contact with imprisoned parents (Bernstein, 2005; Poehlmann, 2005; Shaw, 1987).

94.5% of people in prison are men, the would be fathers. It is common after an arrest that prisoners’ wives are taken over by other men. Many times if a spouse enters prison, the opposite spouse remarries. Many times this remarriage in the case of women is to ensure survival after the loss of a spouse. In result of this remarriage, many children of the prisoners become abandoned by the remaining spouse. In many cases, the children are left in the care of their grandmothers who struggle to create income to care for them.  In other cases the children become the head of a family which increases their vulnerability to sexual abuse, manipulation and child sacrifice.

Children may have to take on new roles following parental imprisonment in order to provide domestic, emotional or financial support for other family members. Their relationships with the imprisoned parent and others around them frequently suffer.

Police officers  and other security officials may not consider the impact of a violent and late-night arrest on a suspect’s children, even though children find it a frightening and traumatic experience, and these are memories that are difficult to delete from a child  and they end up creating lasting negative impacts on their lives even to the point of becoming mentally ill or even committing  crimes themselves and following their parents in prison. The police never ensure that children are safe before they take away their parents; they do not give room for the arrested parent to say good bye.

In the Courts:
Too often judges do not consider an offender’s caring responsibilities when passing sentence, the sentencing guidelines were made without considering the children. Some parents go with their children to court and when they are imprisoned, they leave the children behind at the court with no one to care for them. Children are allowed to attend court sessions that leave them damaged.

The architecture and regimes of the Ugandan Prison do not take into the impact they have on young visitors, often resulting in the remote and inaccessible facilities which are inappropriate for children. There are no child friendly visitation rooms at the prison. Children are not accorded direct visits and as such children are seeing their parent through barriers like wire mesh and metal bars .The environment is harsh in some prisons, the prison officers are not trained to handle young visitors thus ending up being rough with them; all is harmful to the children. Some prisons are far hence requiring money for transport and in many cases there is no willing relative to accompany the children to go visit their parents .

Considering UNCRC Article 9 clause 3 States that Parties shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child’s best interests. In relation to this instrument, children should be accorded direct contact visit on a regular basis.

Also Clause 4 States that Where such separation results from any action initiated by a State Party, such as the detention, imprisonment, exile, deportation or death (including death arising from any cause while the person is in the custody of the State) of one or both parents or of the child, that State Party shall, upon request, provide the parents, the child or, if appropriate, another member of the family with the essential information concerning the whereabouts of the absent member(s) of the family unless the provision of the information would be detrimental to the well-being of the child. States Parties shall further ensure that the submission of such a request shall of itself entail no adverse consequences for the person(s) concerned.

Upon Release:
The return of a parent to a family following imprisonment is challenging for all concerned, yet families and prisoners are rarely given the support they need during this major change, which may be as disruptive as the imprisonment itself. Yet both anecdotal and academic evidence suggests that when children are considered, then many of the negative effects of parental imprisonment can be ameliorated.

Children need to be prepared before their parents are released. Helping families to maintain close relationships may also help to prevent future antisocial or criminal behaviour by imprisoned parents (because having a supportive family environment to return to is a major disincentive to committing further crimes) and by the children themselves (recent studies have shown that having a parent imprisoned increases the likelihood of children committing criminal or antisocial behaviour in later life .

The extent of the problem
Parental imprisonment affects many children, most of whom often come from the most poverty stricken and vulnerable sections of  our Ugandan society and a large section of the Ugandan community lives below the poverty line. There is no comprehensive research about children affected by parental imprisonment, another reason why these children are invisible. However from Wells of Hope experiential research, we can estimate that in Uganda 200,000 children have a parent in prison at any one time  and an average of 650,000 will have had a parent being imprisoned at any one time in one year .Every day, Uganda’s prisons are swelling for instance early 2013 Uganda’s prison population stood at 32,000, and as we speak now it is at 40,000, an increase in number of people being imprisoned means an increase in number of children being affected adversely by having a parent in prison .

Children’s reactions and General plight;
The imprisonment or even arrest of a parent usually provokes strong reactions in their children. These vary greatly and may include sadness, anger, worry and a sense of loss; they also vary between different children for instance some children are used to parents who were not around much before their incarceration, so they may not be affected much. Children of prisoners have fear: a fear of what is happening to their parents in prison. They have a threat of powerlessness, anxiety, Unbearable psychological stress, Embarrassment about oneself or others, Anger, Eating disorders and Halt in Menstruation. Often children of prisoners are discriminated against and stigmatized as a result of  having a parent in prison and suffer from trauma, shame, guilt and low self-esteem.

Relationships with other family members frequently suffer too. Some Children become withdrawn, are affected by increased health problems and regressive behaviour such as bed-wetting. Some children develop behavioral issues like Running away from home, they display increased aggression, violence, antisocial or criminal tendencies, Disobedience/ Stubbornness. Other notable problems among children of prisoners include: changes in sleeping problems or eating behaviour; starting or increasing their use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Children may also feel the impacts of other effects of parental imprisonment, such as parental separation or the loss of income due to imprisonment.
And from our experience we have observed that these children may look for jobs as a way to maintain the family income or to be accepted in their homes and communities.

The impact of parental imprisonment on children can be profound and long-lasting and irreversible.

Health Issues:
Parental imprisonment sometimes has such a severe impact on children that it damages their physical or mental health .Mental health issues which are common include stress; depression; and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as flashbacks about  the crimes or arrests. The perceived extent and severity of the health impact is very prevalent and evident because many children of prisoners suffer ailments, some of which are curable, but they lack means and support to go to hospital. Some children of prisoners have serious complications, but  there is lack of funds to attain appropriate  medical care, some children as a result end up dying. At the beginning of last year (2014), we lost a young girl called Agnes (5 years) to sickle-cells, she lived with a grandmother. Both her mother and father are serving 60 years in Luzira Prison.

In 2012, we saved a young boy called Brian 5 years by then; he had been knocked down by a BodaBoda, (Motor cycle), with a broken thigh bone and had been left to rot with no medical help.

Most of the children of prisoners in Uganda are stunted, mainly because of hunger, disease, emotional deprivation and/or child abuse and neglect .

Community responds: 
Children of prisoners face stigmamany children experience ostracism, hostility, disapproval and scorn. Because of their association with an imprisoned parent, many children will be called names like a “child of a prisoner”, “child of a thief” and many are told that they will be like their imprisoned parents. Children may feel confused about who in the home community they can trust, talk to and be open about having a father/mother in prison.

Life at Home
When a parent  is sent to prison, most homes become disintegrated, some people may revenge by destroying the property of the prisoners, some people steal the property, threaten the children and any remaining relatives, so children run away from home or they are shared among relatives. These children may have to move to a new village very distant from their original homes: they find themselves in a new home or a new school because of  their parents’ imprisonment.

some grown up children run to the streets, the young girls are raped and/or married off at an early age; they become teenage mothers, street children and others may end up as sex workers.  Most of the children of prisoners are involved in child labour, these are children who are used as scare crows in the rice fields and Millet and maize gardens. To protect crops, this is relevant in Eastern Uganda. Some children work in other people’s gardens as slaves or are taken to distant places away from their homes to work as house maids and this is common in Central Buganda and Busogaareas(Eastern Uganda).

In order to further understand the children of prisoners’ situations, we consulted the 120 children we now serve. We found out that the children we serve expressed the following things relating to their daily lifestyle and parent’s imprisonment.

Children receiving 1 meal a day42
Children with caretakers who’ve remarried due to spousal imprisonment56
Children without knowledge of their parents imprisonment43
Children who have been lied to about their parent’s location33
Children that have never seen their mothers17
Children whose fathers have passed away in prison13
Children with fathers that have been released from prison but have disappeared from the child and caretaker4

Life at School:
When a parent is put in prison, most of the children will change schools because they would have moved to a new village. Generally, most children will drop out of school. 70% of those  children dropout of school due to lack of scholastic materials like books, school fees, stigma at school and generally a guardian to ensure they attend school regularly. And because some of them are manipulated and made to work, they will automatically drop out, some children never step in class at all. Even with Universal Primary Education in place, children of prisoners with no support to attend school  will drop out. Children of prisoners who are able to attend school suffer worsening performance and attendance rates at school.

In most schools, children of prisoners are not supported at all; they face stigma, they are pointed at by the teachers and their fellow pupils and are called names, such as “a child of a prisoner.”

An example is a teacher while teaching about death penalty in Uganda, told her class that the death row inmates in Uganda were going to be hanged including a prominent businessman who had a daughter in her class, the girl collapsed and was rushed to hospital.

One of the challenges these children face is lack of communication with the parents in prison and correct information regarding their parent in prison.

Babies in Prison:

Children born in prison or imprisoned along with their mothers face many risks including death. According to the prison standing orders, once a child reaches one year and six months, it should be taken back home. So when these children clock 18 months age, they are separated from their mothers in prison and are placed under the care of relatives or friends of inmates. But some are not able to go home. Out of the 33,000 people in Uganda’s prisons, 4.5% are women. Ten percent of these women are imprisoned with their children. According to the research Wells of Hope carried out amongst 14 mothers in prisons in December 2010, 3 mothers had lost their children after they had been given to their friends or relatives. Yet in the research we conducted among the 120 children of prisoners, we found that 13 of the 46 children who had problems including mental problems, low self-esteem, sleeping problems, stunted growth or depression, were children who had been imprisoned along with their mothers and were later given to their relatives and had been abused during their formative years. This shows the importance of offering early care to such children to avert problems in the future.

Impact of death penalty:
The loss of a parent is very traumatizing to children, but as opposed to a natural death, death caused by the state when it executes a parent on death row, creates confusion and extreme fear to the child. In cases where one of the parents on death row killed his/her spouse, then when the parent is executed, the child will have lost both parents and so the state causes a child to become a total orphan.

The repercussions of parental imprisonment are severe for a child with a parent on death row and/or executed, the most common effects among such children will be confusion, ostracism and hostility from the society. People would want to kill such children because they are considered a curse and also because most of the parents on death row are people convicted of crimes like murder, so the society responds by wanting to kill these children to recompense for the crimes of their parents. As opposed to the other sentences, with death sentence there is complete loss of hope, and in Uganda although no executions are taking place, children live for years thinking that their parents died yet they are alive, and for them to live in a state of uncertainty, always wondering what is happening to their parents in prison, there is indescribable sadness on these children. For the children who are able to visit, each visit maybe the last. Children whose parents are on death row or executed are likely to get mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorders .These children have sleeping problems characterized by night terrors and night mares, sleep talking and insomnia .

In its resolution 22/11, the United Nation Human Rights Council expressed deep concern in regard to  the negative impact of a parent’s death sentence and his or her execution on his or her children and urged States to provide those children with the protection and assistance they may require; But in all states which still maintain death penalty as a punishment, this resolution is disregarded.

The death penalty tramples on the full enjoyment of a range of rights  and obligations by the child  as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child ( UNCRC ). In particular the rights these children  do not enjoy include, the obligation to ensure that the best interest of the child are duly taken into account (art 3), the right to special protection and assistance by the state when a child is deprived of his or her family environment (art 20).

Human rights Issues 
The children with a parent in prison exist under conditions that are in total Contradiction to the UN Convention on the rights of the child. For example, a right to protection against discrimination, to be brought up by the parents if possible, the right to special protection, the right to the best health possible and to medical care and information, the right to help from the government, the right to have a good enough standard of living, the right to education, the right to play, right to be protected from sexual abuse. And the right to protection from any other kind of exploitation.

The rights of the children of prisoners under the UNCRC are not currently at the forefront of the law, policy and practice relating to offenders who are parents nor are the complexities of these children’s predicament reflected adequately in the design of the mechanisms in place to support children. In Uganda, we do not have a support system for children affected by parental imprisonment; they fall through the gap to their detriment hence urgent intervention is required to help them enjoy their rights to the full.