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The perpetual dilemma of what constitutes the best interests for children with mothers in prison

Should little children be allowed to stay with their mothers in prison or they should be separated? This is a difficult question, but there are some suggestions on what should be done for the best interests of the child

‘Zimbabwe: First Female Open Prison for Marondera.’ This was the headline of a story published in the Herald of 6 February 2013. The story went on to relate how Zimbabwe’s intentions to build an open prison were being delayed by lack of financial resources. According to the story, at the time there were 16, 315 people in Zimbabwe’s prisons of which 587 were women. There were also 16 babies living with their mothers in prison. Children’s rights activists and other duty bearers are continually faced with the dilemma on what to do when a woman with an infant has to serve a prison sentence or when a mother gives birth in prison. Generally it is agreed that prison conditions are not conducive for a child’s welfare but the other side of the coin is whether separating the child from its mother is the best option for the child. An open female prison is one way of sheltering the innocent children from the harsh prison life but it only applies in cases where the mothers are serving light sentences. The construction of the female prison is not likely to take place soon and in the meantime the debate on what is best for these children should remain alive.


Section 58 of the Prisons Act [Chapter 7:11"> states that

‘Subject to such conditions as may be specified by the Commissioner, an unweaned infant child of a female prisoner may be received into prison with its mother and may be supplied with clothing and necessaries at the public expense

‘Provided that when such child has been weaned, the officer in charge on being satisfied that there are relatives or friends of the child able and willing to support it shall cause such child to be handed over to such relatives or friends, or if he is not satisfied shall hand such child over to the care of such welfare authority as may be approved for that purpose by the Commissioner.’

It is through this piece of legislation that mothers are permitted to bring their children to prison. In practice, mothers have been allowed to keep their children up to the age of between 18-24 months. However, it is important to note that the language used in the Act seems to favour separation. The use of the words ‘may’ in the legal provision gives the Commissioner of Prisons the discretionary powers to receive or not to receive the unweaned child and whether or not to supply the child with clothing and necessaries. In the same breath, the proviso uses the words ‘shall’, which are mandatory regarding the removal of a child from prison after being weaned. The child is to be handed over to relatives or friends who are willing to take care of it or to any approved welfare authority. One can appreciate the legislative intent to protect children from harsh prison conditions but the question still remains about what the long term effects of separating the child from its mother are. No wonder prisoners’ children have been often referred to as ‘orphans of justice’ [Shaw 1992">.


Mothers who have experienced prison life have to contribute their voice also on what they think is best for their children. Some of the views from mothers in prison have already been recorded in a book titled ‘A Tragedy of Lives Women in Prison in Zimbabwe’. In the book those who went to prison with their children and those who left them with relatives both narrate their experiences. One of the women Maureen said that when she got out of prison:

‘At first sight, my children they looked like scarecrows. Their skin was chapped and they had no shoes on.’

The children were being looked after by relatives and she had been in prison for four years. According to the interviewers, another woman sobbed throughout the interview because she had left her two-year-old daughter in the care of her 70-year-old visually impaired mother. In addition to the fear that her mother would not be able to care for the child, she was also afraid that when she came out of prison her child would not be able to recognize her. These are just a few examples of the many stories in the book where women said life would have been better for their children if they would have gone with them to prison.

However, those who took their children with them also felt that their children suffered in prison. One former inmate, Lillian, stated that:

‘Prison life is tough especially if you have a child. Your child would be exposed to bad language. The child picks up vulgar words. Some were reckless with their use of language. It harmed the children. The worst thing was that my child was older than the rest. Children do not forget. She still shocks me with her prison experiences. She cannot forget. For instance sometimes when I am bathing and I take long, she will stand at the bathroom door and shout, mama if you are late ambuya gadhi [female prison officer"> will beat you up’.

Lillian’s story is a sad one as it shows the negative influence that prison life can have on a child. The child appears to have been traumatized by her experience as she relates to prison events as if there are still part of her present world. These stories are anecdotal evidence of the effects of mothers’ imprisonment on children. While these cannot be used as conclusive evidence, they show that taking children to prison or leaving them may both have negative consequences. The decisive factor may not just be the place but the quality of care which the child receives. Is it not possible then to make prison a conducive environment for child care and delay the separation between the mother and child to allow for parental bonding?



This discussion began with Zimbabwe’s intention to build a female open prison. Sadly, the Herald story ended by saying that the plans to construct the prison are being shelved due to financial constraints. An open prison, while catering for prisoners serving light sentences, allows the prisoners considerable freedom of movement and access to their homes. Thus those with children can still take care of their children while serving their prison sentences. Considering the benefits of the prison not only to inmates but also to children who are innocent victims of the system, construction of the prison should be prioritized and all development partners urged to support the project.


Prison nursery programs allow a mother to parent her infant for a finite period of time within a special housing unit at the prison. They are common in most states in the United States of America but the period for which children can be cared for in the nurseries differs from place to place. The range is from 30 days to 3 years. In order to achieve the goal of keeping mothers with their children, this program would be ideal for those serving short sentences. It means those serving 3 years and below can serve their sentences and go back to their communities without being separated from their children. Although the children will still have limited freedom of movement, they will be able to relate with their mothers and enjoy a relatively normal life at the nurseries.


Unfortunately for mothers serving long sentences, separation is unavoidable as it is not practical to have children staying in prison for a long time. The children will need to go outside where there is freedom of movement and resources required for the program would be insurmountable. Therefore where a child is handed over either to relatives or any other welfare authority, the state should still take an active role in monitoring the care of the child. Such monitoring should be used as a strategic measure to ensure that the child is not abused and adequate care is being provided to the child. Wherever possible, the child may also be assisted to keep contact with the mother through periodical visits to the mother’s place of incarceration.


This discussion is by no means conclusive. The issues raised are only meant to be thought provoking and kick start an indepth debate among state actors and development practitioners on how best to protect and fulfill the rights of children with mothers in prison. The basic argument in this discussion is that an armchair approach which only looks at the potential harmful effects of prison life on children without looking at the effects of the severance of the mother to child bond particularly on infants may be inappropriate. Further research is required before the dilemma of whether to leave the infants in prison with their mothers to allow bonding or take them out to protect them from harmful effects of prison is resolved. In addition to research, there will be need for commitment to invest resources into whatever programs will be deemed to be the best.

* Irene Sithole is an independent consultant and gender equality and children’s rights advocate in Zimbabwe


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