Official figures in Iran put the number of so-called “prison children” — children under two years of age who are forced to live in prison with their inmate mothers — at 426. According to the law, these children must live with their mothers behind bars until they are at least two years old. After that, their fate is not clear.
Mohammad Nafrieh, Deputy for Social Affairs for the State Welfare Organization, recently raised the issue in an interview with the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA). He said he did not agree with the idea of older children being in prison with their mothers. “Childcare centers have no place in prison,” he said. “Except for children under two who need breastfeeding and close proximity to their mothers, it is not in the interest of the child to be in prison.”
Some have viewed Nafrieh’s statements as an expression of inter-departmental rivalry. The State Welfare Organization is responsible for protecting children without guardians, or whose guardians are deemed to be unfit, but Iran’s Prisons Organization has appointed the charity the Children’s Foundation to attend to prison children instead.
The Women’s Affairs Bureau of Tehran’s provincial government first put forward the idea of childcare centers in women’s prisons in 2012. Since then, with the help of Children’s Foundation, the Prisons Organization has launched childcare centers in six provinces. The oldest one is in Urmia, the capital of West Azerbaijan, which currently looks after 35 children.
I contacted the childcare center at the women’s prison in Varamin near Tehran to find out more. The woman who answered the phone said that children only stay at the center during working hours, after which they return to their mothers in prison. “Once a year the children are sent to a camp,” she said. “Otherwise they live with their mothers in the ward outside office hours.” She declined to give me her name.
Missing Childhood Memories
“For years, prison children will carry the effects of living in the unhealthy environment of prison,” sociologist Mehrdad Sadeghian told IranWire. “Prison children are deprived of social experiences like playing with their peers, going to parks or shopping.”
According to Sadeghian, if a child leaves the prison at age seven, he or she will have difficulties forming a normal social life. The child, he said, will try to adjust, “but his lack of readiness will be visible until he reaches adolescence.” As an adolescent, the child does have a good chance of responding well to his peers, he said. “If his friends, who are his biggest role models, are well-behaved, he might be able to outwardly adjust and be successful.”
Will this success be comprehensive, I asked him? Will the child be well-adjusted and satisfied? Sadeghian admitted that a child psychologist would be better equipped to answer, “but from a sociological point of view, he would never feel complete. Until he is older, he will always regret the fact that he could not have ice cream or play with his peers.”
When it comes to Iran’s prison children, there is little agreement among experts. Some believe that keeping mother and child together is a necessity, even if it is behind bars. Others are of the opinion that separating the child from the mother is the best solution in order to distance the child from the unhealthy environment of prison and minimize the disruption in their lives, particularly when transitioning from the mother to a guardian.
But there are children who remain in prison on the insistence of their mothers, even beyond age two. They potentially mix with dangerous criminals and drug traffickers. Some cases are passed on to the Welfare Organization or relatives and friends, but there are cases cases of children who have lived in prison with their mothers from the moment of their birth until the age of 12.
A Little Better, But...
In the 1980s, the situation for prison children was much worse. Iran was in the middle of a war with Iraq and nobody had time or resources to worry about them. They lived in inhumane conditions and no institution paid them any attention or looked after them.
These children were deprived of even minimum levels of medical care. Banoo Saberi, a political prisoner during the war, spoke of her experience with her two children, a daughter and son. “My son had an infection following his circumcision and was screaming nonstop,” she told IranWire. “And the prison guard ordered me to ‘make him shut up.’ When they arrested me everything happened too fast. They wouldn’t let me bring milk, bottles or diapers. My son had been just circumcised.
“I would put my children over my chest and belly, so that I would not feel too hungry and they would feel safe. I wanted to protect them from the moans and cries coming from outside the cell. I wanted them to know I was taking care of them.”
Today, the situation has improved. But there is much need for further improvements. Recently, disturbing reports emerged about inadequate medical attention and drug trafficking gangs inside Gharchak Prison near Tehran. Some of the country’s prison children live at Gharchak.
No Perfect Solution
In the end, the choice comes down to whether it is more important to keep the bond between the mother and child or to provide a healthy environment for the child. So far, there is no agreement on or perfect solution for the problem.
“The issue of children whose mothers are in prison is not an issue specific to Iran,” says Hamed Farmand, a children’s rights activist. “Across the world, it is a subject of argument and disagreement.” One research paper in the United States called the situation of children with incarcerated parents “a shared sentence” and argued that the issue has not received the proper attention that it deserves.
Farmand believes that for children, the negative consequences of living outside the prison without a mother is far less damaging than living with convicted felons. “Of course the child needs a mother to satisfy his or her physical and emotional needs,” he says, “but at the same time the child needs an environment that will help him grow up healthy — prison does not provide such an environment.”
He finds the Iranian prison environment particularly worrisome. “There are no separate facilities for children,” says Farmand. “Based on the little information we have, we know that children are kept in the same place in prison as their mothers. Some prisons do have a ‘mothers’ ward’ but the environment is not very different and the harmful factors are still at work.”
No Transparency in Iran
Iran’s Prisons Organization is not very transparent when it comes to prison children. For example, very little information is available about whether children have access to proper educational facilities in prison, or even about how the mothers treat their children, and whether they are offered guidance on childrearing while in jail. “The incarcerated mothers themselves have not received proper education and care and they must be trained on how to treat the children,” Farmand says.
“It is not enough to separate children in a special ward,” he says. “There must be a separate care center for teaching children healthy social relations.”
But what Farmand finds especially worrisome is the fact that the Social Welfare Organization does not play a supervisory role in the case of prison children. “It is not clear whether the needs of children, from experienced instructors to social workers who understand the situation, are satisfied with the situation or not,” he said. “Even if they are, there seems to be no supervision. The reports we get are vague and do not tell us much.”
Farmand emphasizes that children’s rights come before the rights of the mothers. “We must give priority to the conditions for the child, who needs to grow up in a healthy environment.”