By Petride Mudoola
June 7, 2014 was children’s visitation day at Luzira Maximum Security Prison. There was a big sense of anticipation as the children, supported by Wells of Hope Ministries, waited anxiously to meet their parents. Some of their parents are on death row, others serving long sentences.
On arrival, the children have to undergo the procedural security checks. Fear and anxiety is evident on some of their faces, but reassurance from the guards calms them.
At the condemned section, for the prisoners on death row, inmates clad in white shorts and shirts welcome the children. Each of the visitors has prepared a special meal for their incarcerated family member. As the greeting and hugging dies down, each family says a prayer before partaking of their meal.
The children enjoy the precious moments shared with their parents. For a while the harsh reality of where they really are is forgotten, until it is time to go.
It is an emotional farewell. The parents cling to their children. There are many crying.
Parents speak out
Abdul Mbirinde, 33 was sentenced to death for the murder of a thief after taking part in mob justice. His wife passed away in 2003, leaving him with five children aged between 10 and 14 years. They were forced to stay in the house alone for almost a year, depending on handouts from well-wishers in the neighbourhood.
“I worried that gangsters and drug addicts would prey on them. This gave me sleepless nights. I was not sure whether they were able to eat, get medication or even go to school,” Mbirinde says.
Mbirinde went to the prison authorities to explain his plight. The authorities contacted Wells of Hope, a charity organisation, which enrolled Mbirinde’s children in Wells of Hope Academy. He now sees his children three times a year, when they break off for holidays.
Wells of Hope provides accommodation, education, healthcare and scholastic materials to orphans and children of inmates until the parent is released or when the children become adults and can look after themselves.
Mbirinde’s 14-year-old daughter, Sauda, says they face a double tragedy, having lost their mother. “Life will never be the same again. None of our parents is there for us,” she laments.
Sauda says they are forced to stay in school during the holidays since they do not have anybody to go home to.
Sauda says they are desperate with nowhere to stay. Their house was demolished by angry villagers after their father was accused of murder.
Paul Bwengise, 50 and his wife Barbara Nassimbwa, 38
The couple is serving a 60-year jail term for murder. They left behind four children between two and 11 years of age.
“It is long since I last saw my wife. I keep wondering what happened to her ever since we parted. She was heavily pregnant when we were sentenced,” Bwengise says.
Since both husband and wife are jailed, their children cannot visit them on the same day because they are locked up in different prisons.
We got a chance to visit Nassimbwa, who explains that she had the baby shortly after the sentencing. Their now two-year-old daughter is under the care of Family of Africa, a Luzira-based daycare centre that looks after prisoners’ children.
“My daughter comes to visit me every Sunday. I take advantage of our time together to be the best parent I can be. I prepare a meal for her, do her laundry and then we pray together before she is taken back,” says Nassimbwa.
Bwengise appeals to prison authorities to give him the opportunity to meet his wife and children together. The couple say they appealed against their sentence, but have not received any response.
That God may watch over you for me. Mbirinde takes time to pray for his children before they leave
Challenges inmate parents face
Samuel Kunya, a prisoner, says children need constant guidance, but “since we are still in detention, we are not capable of fulfilling our obligations.” Kunya says whenever his children visit him, he advises them to listen to the advice and guidance of teachers because he is not there to guide them.
Kunya fears especially for his daughters, that he cannot protect them from defilers.
Paddy Opio, the officer in charge of the condemned section says there are two categories of children facing this dilemma: Those that have both parents incarcerated and serving long sentences and those that have only one parent in jail.
Opio observes that both categories face similar challenges when it comes to parenting. “However, children who have both parents incarcerated go through even harder times.”
The United Nations (UN) Convention on the rights of children stipulates that as long as it is in the best interest of the child, the child, who is separated from one or both parents, has the right to maintain personal relations and direct contact with the parents on a regular basis.
Take care of your little sister for me. Nassimbwa counsels her children during visitation day
Francis Suubi, the executive director of Wells of Hope Ministries, says despite the UN convention, this is not the case in several countries, as it remains a privilege for children to visit their parents in prison, yet it is supposed to be a right.
“Little is known about the number of children left behind or what could be done to help them. Punishment in the criminal justice system has traditionally been focused against the offender, with little regard to its wider effects on the offender’s family,” Suubi points out.
Suubi says separating children fro m their parents has long been of concern to both mental health professionals and courts of law. Suubi observes that, “children of prisoners and their parents face a wrenching separation, yet remain an over looked group in our society.”
“Due to the pain and the torture they go through, there is need for the Government to recognise children whose parents have been incarcerated. Through its criminal justice system, it should pass laws that address their rights,” Suubi proposes.
Currently, Wells of Hope Ministries accommodates 108 prisoner’s children between the ages of five and 17.
Suubi says they lack adequate funding and would appreciate the Government’s support towards the welfare of prisoners’ children.