Parenting from behind the bars
As we talk about challenges all of us face while parenting our children in an extremely protected environment providing all the necessary comforts of life, there is other side of the world which is quite difficult for commoners like us to imagine and visualize, here’s a small insight from that world as shared by an acquaintance, as the lone tap fills the cracked cement tank, green algae float to the surface of the water.
Munna (name changed to protect identity) splashes around in the tank, while women gather to fill small jugs with water that will later be used for both washing and drinking. Munna is three years old, and his life revolves around the sludgy water games and women in the enclosure of one of the central prisons of the country.
Munna was born in this prison, and has lived here all his life. His mother is facing trial for alleged murder. The three-year-old barely speaks. He recognizes his mother as ammi and other women inmates as khala.
The only men in his life are the police constables who occasionally visit the female barracks. He is a stranger to almost everything about the world outside. “It was only recently that he saw a dog for the first time during my court visit,” his mother recalled. "He was startled."
Media debates have raged around harsher punishments for teenagers who commit serious crimes, but little attention is paid to this other category of children in prisons. More than 2000 children live with their undertrial or convicted mothers in prisons across India, state National Crime Records Bureau's 2014 Prison Statistics and I am sure the numbers are only higher now.
Though there are several guidelines that authorities like Supreme Court, Human Rights Dept., United Nations have come up with, on the ground however, these guidelines seem to mean little and children and prisoner parents and their relatives face a lot of challenges while raising them and these challenges are often unaddressed.
Other challenges of proper raising environment, good schooling, amenities etc. can always be taken care with government policies and norms by the authorities but one primary challenge is the social stigma these children and parents face and the only solution to this problem would be a change in approach and attitude of the society.
Here’s another experience shared by someone who has gone through the after effect of being stereotyped by the society:
“I still remember clearly the painful process of telling my friends at school that my dad was a criminal and he'd been caught. There was nothing glamorous about it. I felt ashamed and isolated. I was, as far as I knew it, in a minority of one. That was 1979.
In 2018, Statistics say more than 200,000 children across the globe had a parent in prison. Almost two-thirds of these will end up in custody or in trouble with the law. It has taken a charity the size and weight of our state to bring this hidden crisis into the light.”
The stigma of incarceration often extends beyond the individual and results in unintended consequences for their families. In addition to caregiver transitions, socioeconomic disadvantage, and an increased risk for contact with the criminal justice system, children of incarcerated parents are often deemed “guilty by association.
What can care givers or well-wishers do to support these children:
Keep lines of communication open: Talk to children about what’s happened, and help them share their feelings.
Access resources: That could be home visiting services offered via legal methods to help pregnant women and families, particularly those considered at high-risk raise kids who are healthy in all ways – physically, socially and emotionally
Arrange visits with the incarcerated parent: This isn’t always possible or advised, such as if a parent has abused a child. But where appropriate, regular visitation can help both the child and incarcerated parent cope with the ordeal, experts say. Ensure it’s done in a way that’s comfortable for the child.
Provide more detail as children get older: For younger children, a simple explanation that dad or mom broke a grown-up rule – or were thought to break a grown-up rule (if disputed) – may suffice. However, as kids get older, share more age-appropriate information to aid their understanding of what’s happening.
I would advocate for telling things as simply and plainly as possible – not oversharing, not getting into really tough material that might traumatize, always reassuring the child that it’s not their fault and that the parent still loves them, I think are really important things to communicate to children.
(The author is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Learning Arena, an e-learning company)