PRI Board Member and member of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, Justice Imman Ali, outlines the problems facing women prisoners and children in Bangladeshi prisons and calls for the best interests of the child to be paramount when considering the sentencing of the parent.
The situation in the prisons of Bangladesh is overcrowded beyond all proportions. The total capacity is around 27,000 prisoners, including those in the trial process. The percentage of under-trial prisoners is equally alarming and presently stands at around 66%.
In Bangladesh, there are 70,000 prisoners in different prisons across the country, of these 2,570 are women. The vast majority of these prisoners are in custody pending trial. In May 2011, a study was undertaken with 900 female prisoners in Dhaka Central Jail and Kashimpur Central Jail-III (which is exclusively for female prisoners), of whom only 211 were convicted and the remaining were under-trial.
As of 17 July 2011, along with the 2,570 female prisoners, there were 389 babies inside the prisons; some of the women have more than one child residing with them. The babies are in the prisons because their parents are not able to make any alternative arrangement for them outside the prison, or because the babies are too young or breastfeeding and cannot be kept with other relatives.
Some of the mothers start as petty offenders due to poverty-generated need and become habitual offenders. They get bail due the existence of young children who need care. They come in and go out of prison on a regular basis and their children similarly frequent the prisons with their mothers.
Women prisoners serving long term sentences bring their babies into the prisons only by the order of the court and can keep them there up to the age of four years or, with the permission of the superintendent of the prison, up to the age of six. If a woman fails to bring her child with her on first entry into the prison, she can apply to the court subsequently through the prison authority to bring the baby inside the prison. Similarly, orders need to be passed from the court for the release of those babies after attaining the age of four years or, at the discretion of the superintendent, six years. If any mother wants to transfer her baby to any approved institute, for example those run by the social welfare department, she can apply to the District Magistrate to take the child into the care of the authority.
According to the Jail Code, it is the responsibility of the jail authorities to care for the children who reside on their premises, including provision for their food and clothing. Mothers who have children with them are also entitled to nutritious food and certain other privileges. The children are kept in a separate place when their mothers are engaged in duties allocated to them as convicted prisoners. In ten of the central jails, the government has set up child development centres, where children are kept during the daytime. Dhaka Central Jail has a full-fledged Day-Care Centre, where children are kept while their mothers take part in vocational training. The District jails, of which there are 55, do not have any separate facilities for children. They are kept in the areas designated for female prisoners. Sometimes one or two women are assigned duty to take care of all the children during the day.
The downside of having children in prisons is that their psychological, mental/intellectual development suffers, inasmuch as they do not see the outside world and have no idea about nature and real-life surroundings. There is no scope for them to grow up ‘normally’ as other children in free society amongst friends and relatives. They do not have the benefit of their father’s presence and his guidance. There is no scope for any type of education for the children inside the prisons. From the beginning of their lives, they are exposed to confinement with women who are convicted or accused of criminal offences. Just like the prisoners, the children have no freedom of movement or association/interaction with others. The likelihood is that they may become misfits in society and may also leave prison with a stigma attached to them for the rest of their lives. This would have an immense negative psychological effect when they enter mainstream education.
Various alternatives can be considered for ‘child-rearing’ women who are accused of criminal offences. Taking them into custody pending trial should be the exception and not the norm. They should be offered counselling about the possibility of their being separated from their children and/or the negative and detrimental effects of the child residing inside the prison.
If incarceration of mothers is at all necessary, then an alternative system of open-type prisons should be available for women breastfeeding babies or very young children. Alternatively, the State should ensure better placement of these children within immediate, extended or other families.
Where incarceration is inevitable, then facilities should be provided for the care of children in a separate compound away from the prison where educational and other everyday facilities may be provided.
Other possible ways to deal with the situation might be a change in the sentencing system whereby the mother’s sentence is suspended until after the baby is weaned from breastfeeding and is old enough to be left at home.
Periodic imprisonment may be considered whereby the mother is kept in confinement only at weekends or a set number of hours during the day. In this way the child can be kept ‘free’ with maximum contact with the mother. There can be many other permutations of this.
Alternatively incarceration of the mother may be avoided altogether by awarding a sentence of community service.
The best interest of the child must be a primary consideration and first preference should always be to avoid incarceration of children.
On a broader plane, the sentencing of any convicted person, including male members of the family should take into account the interests of children who would be deprived in more ways than one. In the absence of the father/mother the children not only lose the bread-winner, but also lose the love, affection, guidance and security expected from the parent. This is especially so in a patriarchal society where the father is the dominant figure. The devastating effect on the children’s safety, food security, education and general upbringing must be taken into account when passing sentence of imprisonment upon the parent of a child. In the absence of the father, in particular, the male children tend to become unruly and uncontrollable. The children’s education suffers most. It must be remembered that in most developing countries, including Bangladesh, there is no social welfare system in place to support the family in the absence of the bread-winner. A sudden financial crisis leads to some families becoming destitute and in many cases engenders criminogenic behaviour in the remaining family members.
Laws/guidelines need to be in place to ensure that sentencers make provisions for the general well-being of children before sentencing either parent to spend time in prison. No matter how bad a criminal the father or mother might be, the children are innocent and need protection. Unless they are properly looked-after and brought up in a civil life-style, they may themselves take up criminal activities and are likely to end up as a menace to society.