At the periphery of Assella Correction Centre, 180km south of Addis Ababa, stands a dilapidated building where 69 female prisoners are separately detained. They live in a single room packed with old bunk-beds, the overcrowding and absence of windows causing a terrible suffocating environment.
Fifteen female prisoners used to live there with their 21 young children. For social, cultural or economic reasons their mothers had little choice but to bring their children with them as they served their sentences or awaited trial. These children are among an estimated 500 children living in Ethiopia’s prison system, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (2012). In 2011, the Initiative for Improving Standards of Prison (IISP) launched a project aimed at curbing the multitude of challenges infants and young dependent children were facing in prison through improving their living conditions.
IISPs approach to improving conditions and opportunities
With Civil Society Support Programme (CSSP) support, IISP entered into dialogue with prison and government authorities to improve facilities for children at Assella Correction Centre and offer training and micro-finance opportunities for their mothers.
Thirty-six year-old mother of six Sefiya is serving an 8 year prison term at Assella Correction Centre, and is one of the mothers who had no choice but to bring her children with her whilst she serves her sentence. Many children that live in prison have limited access to proper education, health services or even an open space for playing. Some children living in Assella prison had the option of travelling to a school outside of prison, yet this is not without its complications. Sefiya laments ‘as the school is remote they were compelled to stay the whole day at school with empty stomach. Neither could we afford to send them with a lunch box nor were they allowed to come back ‘home’ at noon.’ Due to a lack of interaction, bullying and social exclusion these young children were also at high risk of psychological stress that has a detrimental impact on their behaviour and future capacity to proceed in education and social settings.
Poor sanitation and healthcare facilities in prison also exposes children to disease. Sefiya broke into tears as she described to death of her youngest daughter in prison, ‘death took my little angel away from me. She passed away in my arms after sufferings for several weeks. She was malnourished. I had neither the money to feed her nor a relative to send her to for better medication.’
Creating income generating activities
Today, just in front of the female correction centre stands a compound where you can find children in their school uniforms playing while their mothers are engaged in income generating activities. This is the newly constructed ‘Alternative Correction Centre for Female Prisoners Living with their Infants and Children’, built by IISP with the support from CSSP.
‘Unlike the past, now my children are performing well at school. Because it is us who control the power switch this time, they can now do their homework and read through the night without worrying when they will turn the light off.’ said Sefiya.
The prospects for Sefiya and her family have improved. Due to her growing income, Sefiya is now more than ready to send her eldest daughter back to school by next year. ‘I know my daughter was a very good and smart student before I was convicted; I now want to send her back to school.’
This story of change is from the Civil Society Support Programme 1.