November Issue 2014

By | Featured News | Society | Published 10 years ago

If you talk to the superintendent of the women’s prison at Karachi Central Jail (KCJ), or the lawyers and NGO workers providing legal and medical assistance to the 85 women incarcerated there, you wouldn’t think the prison environment is cause for concern for the children living there with their mothers.

Superintendent Sheba Shah has overseen the women’s division of KCJ for the last eight to 10 years. She acknowledges that a prison is no place for children to spend the most impressionable years of their lives, but she also believes that the facilities available to them at KCJ are quite good. “We have a Montessori and games for the children, and the mother and child  healthcare provided here is very good. A lady doctor visits the prison every day and we also have a gynaecologist who the women can consult with if they need to.” However, although she says that the children at KCJ “have no problem living here because the environment is just like a hostel,” Shah says she has, nonetheless, spoken to the concerned authorities about the need to find alternative living arrangements for these children on numerous occasions, considering the psychological effects prison life could have on them. That notwithstanding, in her decade-long experience at the prison, Shah says the convicts’ children have never displayed any really questionable behaviour. Noor-us-Sabah Hussain from the Legal Aid Office, an advocate for the women prisoners at the jail, agrees. “The environment is not so bad that it will create psychological problems for the children who are living there. In fact, it doesn’t feel like a prison at all, and the wardens can often be seen spending their tea break with the prisoners. The women also have access to a yoga instructor, stitching and art classes — but I can only speak for the women’s prisons in Karachi and Hyderabad,” she says.

The Montessori at KCJ is run by two teachers, themselves convicts. Saman has been teaching for almost a year now, and her prior teaching experience was a three-month stint at a well known school in Rahim Yar Khan before her incarceration. She says that all the children living at the prison attend classes, which are held five days a week — although her class consists of only five students whereas at present there are 16 children living at KCJ. With no formal syllabus to follow, Saman teaches the children English (e.g. spellings, the names of primary colours, shapes and pet animals), Urdu and Math (e.g. counting and tables). The students’ ages range from about four to eight years, and Saman says “each child absorbs whatever he/she can, based on their understanding.” The Montessori is a great initiative at providing innocent children reprieve from the jail’s harsh environment, even if only for a few hours each day, but it is worth asking how much of an education the children are really getting considering they are taught collectively in one class even though their levels of comprehension, given the age difference, must differ greatly. Moreover, although the children attend classes five days a week, these two-and-a half hours from 9.30 in the morning to 12 in the afternoon are meagre compared to the usual six-hour school day in Pakistan.

According to the Pakistan Prison Rules 1978, more commonly known as the Jail Manual, children older than six years are not allowed to stay with their mothers in prison and are sent to live with relatives or in foster homes like the SOS Children’s Village and Mera Ghar. In practice, however, in Karachi, the average age of inmates’ progeny who are incarcerated with their mothers usually stretches to 7 years, and in “special cases” to 12-year-olds as well. According to Sheba Shah, women convicts keep their children with them because they cannot trust their relatives to look after them. “They believe that their children will be safer and will get a better education inside the prison than in the outside world.”

Sultana, who was charged with the murder of her husband, has been incarcerated at KCJ for the last three years. Her seven-year-old daughter lives with her. Sultana says she wants her daughter to get a good education and while she understands that growing up in prison is not good for her, they have no relatives on the outside who can look after her daughter.


Clinical psychologist Kiran Bashir Ahmad, teaching at Bahria University’s Institute of Psychology, has previously conducted research on women and juvenile prisoners in Karachi. Given the nature of the crimes they are imprisoned for, Ahmad says the women are wary of sending their children to relatives because “upon release, they often find that their children have been turned against them (by relatives) or have become criminals themselves. And as to those convicts whose children don’t live with them, “one of the major factors of depression is that they are away from their children. So it’s a double-edged sword,” Ahmad says. According to Asma Mushtaq, however, a Women’s Aid Trust (WAT) advocate at Rawalpindi Central Jail, there is a silver lining, “Women prisoners who have very young children sometimes get a one year remission in their sentence, which is a major reason for keeping their children with them.”

Based in Lahore, WAT provides legal and psychological assistance to women convicts at various jails in Punjab. The resident psychologist, Fauzia Khaled, says the improvements at KCJ and Adiala Jail are great initiatives. However, “a prison will always have a negative environment no matter how many reforms are introduced. And anyone who thinks that the jail environment does not affect children is living in dreamland,” she says. The characteristics children pick up in the first five to seven years of life usually remain with them forever, and in prison children adopt a lot of the vulgarities present in their surroundings. “Homosexuality is common in women prisons in Pakistan, the convicts use abusive language and engage in immodest conversations with male inmates using mobile phones (within earshot of the children),” Khaled says. However, it’s not just the verbal language that has an impact on them; the non-verbal communication children observe also affects them. “They see prison wardens frisking convicts roughly and prisoners being violent towards each other, and they themselves are subject to negative reactions from others. Because several prisoners share a single barrack and there is no separate area for the children, they are constantly shunted from one place to another by prisoners for getting in their way,” she continues.

In the long run, these children are also more likely to commit crimes because they are less afraid of prison life. In a research that was conducted two years ago, Ahmad found that several male juvenile offenders were actually children of women offenders, who had been shifted from the women’s prison to the juvenile prison as they got older.

Mushtaq believes that the legislation itself is the crux of the problem. “I think children should be allowed to live with their mothers in prison only until about two years of age, when they are breast-feeding.” (Incidentally, this is the law in the UK.) “After that they should be raised elsewhere. Six years is too old, and by that age the child has adopted so much from the environment that it becomes difficult to undo the damage. And if nothing else, we should at least ensure that the women prisoners who have children are allocated separate quarters from the others,” she says. In theory this should be possible because overcrowding in women prisons in Pakistan is not an issue. KCJ, for example, has an authorised capacity of 250 prisoners whereas at present there are only 85 inmates. Male prisons, on the other hand, are severely overcrowded and in 2011, Malir prison had 2,296 prisoners against a capacity of only 893. But according to Sheba Shah, separating prisoners in this way is not an option, and is also pointless because the mother convicts are just as bad an influence on the children as the other prisoners.

As psychologists, Khaled and Ahmad both suggest more efforts be made at rehabilitation. Relating a recent incident in which one inmate’s daughters were beaten up at the foster home they were staying at, Khaled says more organisations geared to looking after these children only need to be established, to help reintegrate them into society. Ahmad suggests that more halfway houses be set up to help normalise these children’s lives, “instead of suddenly throwing them out into the world,” but she also says that it is the stigma associated with growing up in a prison, a halfway house or a foster home that needs to be eliminated. “Although right now the juvenile and women prison authorities in Karachi are doing quite a lot to improve living conditions, we need halfway houses that don’t look like a prison. And, yes, the way a place looks does make a difference. A boarding school would be even better because the children would not carry the label of growing up in a halfway house.”

Although a lot has been done to improve living conditions for children living with women convicts in Sindh and Punjab, this is true only for jails in the main city centres. The situation in district jails has not yet received equal attention.

The names of the prisoners have been changed.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue.

Hiba Mahamadi was an Editorial Assistant at Newsline