By MELIS TON
One of the latest researches on small children who have to live in prisons is conducted by Gamze Akkuş İlgezdi, an Istanbul deputy from the main opposition party CHP. In her report, she drew attention to the 560 children who have to stay in prisons due to their mothers’ detention or conviction. “According to the replies we received from the Ministry of Justice in compliance with the Right to Information Act; the number of women who are kept in custody in Turkish prisons as of April 2017 is as follows,” she explained. “Total 516 women of whom 171 are detained and 345 convicted are currently staying in prisons. The number of children between ages 0 and 6 staying with their mothers in prisons is 560. According to the same data, 44 women are staying in prison with more than one of their children, 16 of whom are detained and 28 convicted.”
Ms. İlgezdi states in her report that:
“Infants who meet with prison conditions as soon as or soon after their birth due to their mothers’ crimes stand before us as one of the most heart-breaking problems we face in our penal system. These small children who become like a party to their mothers crime since their birth, step into adulthood before they properly enjoy their childhood. In Turkey, there are three options available for 0-6 year old children whose mothers are detained or convicted:
- If they have a family member who can look after them, they can stay under their guardianship,
- If they do not have a relative who can look after them, they are kept with their mothers in prison,
- If the mother does not accept her child to stay in prison, the child can be placed in a child care institution that operate “under the guardianship of the state”.
However, some mothers do not want to be separated from their babies, despite having a family member who can look after their babies outside the prison. They want their children to remain with them for reasons like suckling or security, despite the unsuitable conditions of the prison.
According to the data given by the Ministry of Justice in response to the information request, as of April 2017, the number of imprisoned women who stay in Turkish prisons together with their children is 516: 171 of whom are kept under detention and 345 convicted. The number of children between ages of 0-6 who stay in prison together with their mothers is 560. According to the same data, the number of women who are staying in prison with more than one of their children is 44 –16 detained, and 28 convicted.
Mothers staying in prison with their children are being alienated by other women in the ward. Since they cannot bear the children’s noise, many of the detainees do not want to stay in the same ward as the women with children. Detainees who are disturbed by this request their ward to be changed. This causes a pressure on the mothers and their children. The children, who are made quiet by being constantly shushed and forced to use their body language instead are sometimes not even able to learn to talk properly.
These children are not given separate meals. Feeding is always the biggest problem in prisons for everyone. The situation becomes more unbearable for the children staying together with their mothers in prison. Although these children should be provided a special menu suitable to their age and nutritional needs, they are not even given separate meals and bread. Mothers with children are not given any other choice than feeding both themselves and their children with the one-person meal they are supplied.
The children are not taken into consideration when distributing food items that are given with certain allocated numbers such as dessert, pastry, fish, fruits, etc. They do not supply children-friendly cutlery either. The children are struggling to eat their meal with big, sharp and thin metal spoons and forks given to adults.
Children are growing up without any toy!
No toy other than soft-stuffed toys are allowed inside the wards on the ground that there are enough toys in the prisons’ play-rooms. This causes toddlers between 0-3 ages to grow up without any toy, as they cannot go to the play-room either. Although the radios with batteries and cages for birds in the prisons are allowed, toys for small children staying in prisons with their mothers are not permitted for ridiculous security reasons such as “this has got batteries; that is wooden etc.” The toy bans do not stop here. The guts of the toys that are sent as presents are opened up one by one by the technical staff in prisons, hence they become useless. All kinds of paints and play-doughs are forbidden, because the officials say, “There is a playroom in the prison, let them do their paintings there!” Detainees try to solve this problem themselves by making hand-made dolls to soothe their babies.
Prison rules and practices are also imposed on children
While going in and coming out of many places in prisons including the playroom, the children pass through the x-ray machines called “Inmate Admission”. When the machine gives an alarm because of her shoe or hair pin, these are removed and the child is made to pass through the machine again and again. Ward counting and body searches are conducted in front of children’s eyes; they themselves are also exposed to these practices. This naturally cause traumatic effects on these children.
The children are taken to hospitals without their mothers
Since the prison environments are not kept satisfactorily hygienic, warm or well-ventilated for the children, they frequently fall ill. There is only one certain day and time the detainees can see the prison doctor; so even if you are ill, you are not allowed to go to the medical room. The same rule counts for the children too. The medications even if they are for the children are brought two days after the prescription at the earliest. Because there are no full-time GPs at prisons, children are referred to hospitals only after completing certain procedures. During the travels to/from hospitals, since they are taken there without their mothers, the children often experience serious trauma.
There are no beds for children
Another situation where the children are not taken into consideration is the denial of separate bed for them. They are counted as one person together with their mother. Because they are not given the right to have a separate bed, the children are forced to sleep with their mothers on a narrow single bunk-bed. They share the same bunk-beds with people who are stranger to them. When there is a child in a two-person ward, the situation becomes worse. The existence of the children including their clothes, belongings, necessary items, etc. is completely ignored, whilst one child sometimes needs to occupy a bigger space than an adult. The lack of space causes the children to have difficulty to walk even when they come to the age of three, because they had not been able to crawl and complete their physical development healthfully. In addition to denying the children separate beds and meals, the prison officials also deny permission to do the children’s laundry separately.
Their most fundamental rights are violated
The children in prisons are denied their most fundamental right of coming and playing together with their peers, playing with toys, going out to play-fields and kindergartens, all of which are very essential for their mental development. While small boys growing away from other male figures and friends and spending all the time with the women in the ward, they are very likely to suffer gender identity problems. Some of these boys start copying women and exhibiting behaviours peculiar to women such as applying make-up, waxing hair, etc.
DISTRIBUTION OF CHILDREN AGES STAYING WITH THEIR MOTHER IN PRISONS
The children grow up without seeing the clouds
According to the data given by the Ministry of Justice, only 100 of the 560 children who have to live with their jailed mothers can see the open air. Apart from the children who stay with their mothers in open-prisons where the environment is similar to the outside world, the remaining 460 children are struggling to live behind grey walls and barbed wires without even learning how the birds and clouds look like in real life.
In conclusion, the unlawful imprisonment of the children who have to stay in prisons due to their jailed mothers clearly breaches the principle ordered by the Convention on the Rights of the Child stating that “the childhood is entitled to special care and assistance”. For this reason, it must be reminded that it is an obligation to improve the conditions of the prisons to make it possible for the children in prisons to live like other children not like the convicts.
The current situation victimises the children. It is witnessed that many of the children who had to live in prisons together with their mothers until the age of 6 want to go back to the prison, because they feel scared when they meet the world outside and have difficulty to adapt. If the government insists on keeping the women with children in prisons, it ought to prepare environments where women can build a healthy bond with their babies and exercise their motherhood and small children can complete their physical and mental development in a healthy manner. Most importantly, these children must be provided pre-school education and must be allowed to go to school outside the prison. Socialising activities for children must be expanded and the ban on toys must be lifted. Fathers should be given opportunity to have long-duration contact visits with their children and wives and this opportunity should further be extended to outside of the prison.
A second suggestion is to build a new kind of prison specifically designed for women with small children. Instead of letting children to grow up among hundreds of convicted women whose mental state is unstable, we must give them the comfort of their homes in prisons where they can stay together with other mothers with children in similar situation.”
In addition to the problems stated above, another issue is the lack of educational activities in prisons for toddlers between ages 0-3. The children between ages 3-6 are able to benefit from the kindergarten activities if available at allocated hours and they are then taken back to their mothers. The only place where they can be together with their peers and get some education is the prison kindergartens.
Children who turned 6 are not legally allowed to stay with their jailed mothers. They are taken and if there is someone from their family and relatives who can look after them, they are entrusted to them. If there is no one, they are given to the related institutions of the Ministry of Family and Social Policies.
All the researches conducted on this matter commonly point out that the children who had to live together with their jailed mothers have to begin their life journeys by climbing up a very tough and steep hill. The children staying with their mothers until they are 6 are taken out of prison and if the mother’s sentence is not completed, they are given to family members or sent to certain “institutions”. They are not fed well. They are not living in healthy conditions; even seeing the sun is an exceptional blessing for them. They do not receive a satisfactory pre-school education, nor do they get any psychological support to eliminate or at least reduce the negative impacts of this environment on their mental health. These children do not even have beds to sleep on!
These children grow up sleeping on the same bed as their mothers not on separate beds on the ground that “there is no space left for inmates to walk around.
They are not growing up in a good environment. They sometimes witness bitter arguments and even fights which may end up with serious injuries. They are in a place where the violent and profane language is uttered without any filtering.
If there is a play-room, they are lucky. This is the only chance that they can see each other, because only one child is allowed in each ward.
Children who are younger than 4 may be sometimes taken outside by their family members, but this seems to be a very rare occasion.
Living conditions are tough in all aspects. Providing baby food is another issue. The prison administration allows toddlers only one packet of baby food a month. Normally, however, a baby is supposed to consume two packets a week. The children do not have toys; they play with cigarette packets!
Since they are not exposed to sunlight, the children in prisons are prone to diseases caused by vitamin D deficiency. They are not allowed to stay somewhere they can see the sun like a windowsill even for two hours a day. These children do not receive an adequate education. They officially receive a sort of education but the situation is completely different in practice. There is no educational support what-so-ever for the children between ages 0-3. The children between ages 3-6 on the other hand can only spend “certain amount of time” in prison’s kindergarten. It is very clear that there are many things to be done for these children, some of whom are growing up with experiencing trauma, witnessing violence, deprivation and bad language.
What are the obligations of the government in this regard and to what extent does it fulfil its obligations?
The prison environment is damaging indeed for small children and their mothers all the way. Separating jailed mothers from their children and leave these little children outside away from their mothers also cause problems. For this, the government must first of all stop jailing pregnant women or women with small children. Motherhood is a basic woman right which must also be enjoyed by all jailed women in the most productive and healthy manner.
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