NAIROBI — Kenya’s only maximum-security female institution has opened a day care facility for inmates’ children under the age of four. Some were born in prison and, until now, have spent all their time with their mothers and the other prisoners.
Within the city limits of Nairobi is the Langata Women’s Prison, housing women convicted of murder, assault, and drug smuggling, along with others found guilty of petty crimes.
However, it is not just the women who live here. Some of them were pregnant before arriving to prison and delivered their babies behind bars. Others had small children who accompanied them to Langata.
These children, whose other family members are either unable or unwilling to care for them, spend every moment of the day with their incarcerated mothers. That is, until this week, when a day care center was officially opened at the prison.
Against the colorful backdrop of the new playroom, filled with toys and games, Jane Kuria says that the new center will greatly improve the children’s lives. Kuria is the CEO of the Faraja Foundation, an organization that helps the needy in Kenya, including prisoners.
“Basically they can spend the whole day, eating nutritious food alone, play alone amongst themselves, and in the evening, go back to be with their mothers. That is what drove us to do this project," said Kuria.
Margaret Ngunjiri has served as the Officer in Charge of the prison for the last two years. She says she is pleased to open the day-care facility as a way to help these children who are not guilty of any crimes.
“Of course it’s difficult because a child is innocent, she has no committal warrants [conviction documents], she is innocent." Ngunjiri. "But to see, the environment is what is not very nice, because the child is supposed to be with the rest of the children, playing, some freedom but not in confinement.”
This confinement is one of the reasons why Father Peter Meienberg, the founder of Faraja, spearheaded the effort to build the center.
“I felt that the children had a right to live the ordinary life of a child, and they were deprived of that, said Meienberg. "They stayed with their poor mothers for 24 hours a day, they listened to all the negative things they heard…and so I decided that something has to be done. They have a right to live the ordinary life of a child.”
Kuria says that day care will not only help the children; their mothers will also benefit from this new addition to the prison.
“In my view, I think this is very good, even for the mothers whose children are here, because of even their own psychological well-being. Because sometimes, as a mother, you want to be away from your child for just a while, so you can also find time to think about your life, think about what really is going on, in you, even without this child," she said. "So it would be very healthy for the mothers to have their children just away for a whole five hours, five to eight hours a day, because I know children are growing up, and the women, among themselves, can deal with their own issues.”
According to Kuria, the center is so nice that she worries about the children’s reintegration after they leave the prison.
“After they get used to this kind of environment, what happens when they get back to the society, where this may not be available? So this is something we have to deal with because obviously back home, or where they will go, if their mothers are still in prison, it may be very different from what we are exposing them to," Kuria said.
There are roughly 700 women incarcerated at Langata Women’s Prison and more than 45 children under the age of four who live there with their mothers.