GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Fourteen-month-old Barra took his first steps in a prison cell no more than 5 meters (16 feet) long. He stumbled. He got up, walked a few more steps and fell again. Barra is spending the first months of his life with his mother in Ansar prison, where she is serving a seven-year sentence for unlawful sexual intercourse, that is, prostitution.
Barra’s mother told Al-Monitor, “I have served nine months of my sentence, and I hope that my appeal will succeed, and I will serve only one-third of the sentence.” She said that the prison does not provide proper food or clothing for her son and that she has to buy everything from the prison’s grocery store. “My son is only eating bread dipped in tea because there is no baby food,” she stated.
The Ansar prison facility lies west of Gaza City. The prisoners who spoke to Al-Monitor did so on condition of anonymity.
There are four children at Ansar, and all that they see of this world is the cell in which they are confined, a long corridor and the roof where the prisoners take their breaks, which does not seem suitable for children; there is nothing there but cold water taps. In this prison environment, there is not a single toy or a tree.
Ibtisam Abu Hani, the prison warden, said, “When Barra hears the sound of the keys, he runs to the cell door, and as soon as I open it, he rushes out like a bird released from a cage.”
A 20-month-old girl named Malak occupies the same cell, which holds seven prisoners in all. Unlike Bara, she is silent and scared. She doesn’t move much. When someone makes a loud noise, she screams and clings to her mother.
Malak’s mother was also charged with prostitution. She told Al-Monitor, “I came in when I was four months pregnant with my daughter. I’ve spent nearly two years and three months in prison, and the situation is very difficult. … I feel that my daughter is not normal. I often scream and cry. This affects Malak very much.” She said her daughter eats meals provided by the prison, but that there is no special milk for her.
Like many of the prisoners, Malak’s mother is estranged from her family. Aisha Abu Rahma, a prison social worker, told Al-Monitor, “We convinced her husband and children to visit her. Reconciling [the prisoners] with their families is part of our mission.”
Malak’s mother said, “I saw my children, six daughters and a son, for the first time last week. I cried a lot. They've really grown up. My sin was that I tried to provide them with food, as their father abandoned us. I hope that they forgive me.” Meanwhile, Barra’s mother, a divorcee, complains about the lack of visits from her family, saying, “I feel lonely and ostracized and that has destroyed my life forever. No one asks about us.”
In another cell of the prison that feels smaller than Barra's mother's and holds three prisoners, a 6-month-old girl named Warda and her mother appear to be exhausted from the intense heat. There are fans, but they do not work because of frequent electricity cuts.
Warda’s mother was jailed a month ago following a family dispute when a man was killed in her home. She told Al-Monitor, “The weather is hot. My daughter cries most of the time. Nobody outside can take care of her because she still breastfeeds.” The prison administration rarely provides diapers or milk, she added.
Abu Rahma said the children are receiving medical vaccinations on time, stating, “The mother goes to the clinic outside the prison, accompanied by a policewoman. Some of [the children] spend their holidays in the homes of their relatives. … We are doing what we can to provide care for the children. We have asked for help from feminist and charitable organizations, but the response has been weak, and the government’s capabilities are limited.”
The Gaza Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas and oversees the prisons, has been suffering from a lack of operational budgets and the ability to pay employees' salaries for more than a year. The government of national reconciliation had provided money in October for employees of the previous Gaza government.
Four-month-old Maria is the youngest child in the prison. She is asleep, but sweat covers her face because of the intense heat. Maria’s mother, in jail for theft, told Al-Monitor, “Maria is sleeping because of the heat, but when she wakes up, we will be busy with her and the other child. Their presence soothes us a lot. We spend time taking care of them, praying and reading the Quran.”
The four mothers are worried. According to the Reform and Rehabilitation Centers Law No. 6 (1998), they must give up their children when they reach the age of 2, amid the ostracism of their families and community.
Psychologist Zahia al-Qara pointed out that children living in prison often do not develop learning skills. They live in an adult world, in an environment with criminal tendencies, surrounded by negative values.
“A child in prison misses out on the play environment that would [ordinarily] help form his or her personality,” she told Al-Monitor. “They become isolated with their mothers because they suffer the same stigma. An anger against society and a sense of injustice grow inside the child, who then acquires a distorted self-image. When they get out, they do not adapt easily.”
Qara said that such children end up suffering from identity crises, especially because they rarely interact with men. They do not live with fathers or brothers, but with convicted mothers who have been rejected by society. If their fathers were in prison, the children would still be accepted by society, which forgives men for their crimes, unlike women, according to Qara.
Sameh Hamdan, head of the Society of Post-Care Prisoners, called on the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Interior and other relevant institutions to provide for the special needs of these children, who are a forgotten group in prison. “Their needs are not expensive: food, beds, milk, diapers, a place to play and the training of workers on how to deal with them,” he said.
According to Hamdan, what is happening is contrary to the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners adopted by the United Nations. The rules require a nursery, with qualified staff, where infants can be placed when they are not in the care of their mothers.
Barra tried to speak, managing to say the first letters of “Mama.” Seven mothers nearby rejoiced. One of them told Al-Monitor, “We miss our children. And this child reminds us of them.”