As well as implementing a modified version of Tostan’s nonformal Community Empowerment Program in five Senegalese prisons, the Prison Project has recently begun to address the issue of children living in prison with their mothers. 

In Senegal, women who are arrested while they are pregnant or nursing a child are taken to prison like any other detainee. Women who are nursing may bring their child with them to live in the prison. Due to the time it takes to appear before a court in Senegal, almost all pregnant women who find themselves in this situation will give birth in prison, and they too are allowed to keep their babies with them. Children can stay in the prison until the age of three, though they often leave at a younger age, if family members agree to care for the child and if the mother gives her consent. However, many detainees have strained or nonexistent ties with their families, are very far from their family home, or do not have a family member with the financial means to care for an additional child, meaning that there are some children who have nowhere to go. Tostan’s Prison Project is working to find a solution for these children in the form of alternative housing that can provide for all of their needs, including food, clothing, health care, and education. 

Living in a prison is not ideal for children as, other than perhaps one or two other children housed in the same institution, they are socializing exclusively with adults. These children are not familiar with the outside world, as many have never left prison grounds, and often become scared of everyday things such as cars, having never seen or ridden in one. The prison is unable to pay for the care of these children, meaning their basic needs are not always met, and their mothers often depend on outside organizations, such as Tostan, to provide clothes, food, diapers, medications, and more. The prison does not provide education for children, making it all the more important that they leave the prison at the age of three, or before, so that they can start school on time. 

Finding a home for children without available family in Senegal can prove a complex and difficult process. There are no public or government structures in place to take care of these children, meaning only private options are available. Private centers for children often have all the resources necessary to care for the children but have strict rules for admission, including the requirement of a variety of official documents, including a birth certificate, health records and copies of identity cards from both mother and father. These documents are often impossible to obtain for the children of detainees, since many mothers come from impoverished and isolated families and may have never had them in the first place. Others may have left their documents, along with the rest of their belongings, behind when they were arrested, at a house or with a family member with whom they may or may not still be in contact. 

Other obstacles include the length of time a child can stay at a center and the ability for mothers to reclaim their children when released. Many of the mothers that the Prison Project works with are serving long sentences, often ten years or more, meaning housing solutions need to be long-term. Mothers want and expect to be able to reclaim their children upon their release, which can sometimes be a problem since some centers put children up for adoption within a few years if they have not been claimed by family members.   

The Prison Project team is working with government partners to bridge the gap between the private children’s centers’ requirements and what families are able to provide. They hope that, with government support, private centers will be willing to take these children despite their lack of documents, because of the complex situation that they are in. One Senegalese prison where we work, is currently housing three children over the age of three, and we hope to be able to transfer them to alternative accommodation within the next month. Following this urgent case, the team hopes to streamline the system, finding a center that can always accept children getting too old to stay with their mothers in prison, and adequately provide for their basic needs. The team has committed to visiting the children placed in centers at least once a month and to bringing them to see their mothers every three months, ensuring that mothers are able to reclaim their children when they are released. 

The Prison Project team hopes to create formal partnerships in the coming months and is looking into the possibility of organizing a meeting for all stakeholders to discuss this issue and create a plan for how to address it in the most effective and efficient way. Stay tuned for further updates from this latest Prison Project endeavor.     

Story by Kaela McConnon, Tostan.