Female prisoners have rights too

The manner in which pregnant prisoners are being treated is extremely worrying, if not shocking.

Paul Bogaert
Paul Bogaert

There is no doubt that their rights are being violated, and with impunity – not to mention those of their innocent, un-born children. This abuse is evident at two levels – the manner in which prison officials relate to them and how hospital staff handle them when they are admitted at public health institutions.

As regards the first category, we have noted that prison officials deliberately choose to ignore the fact that the inmates in question require special attention.

They are thus lumped together with other prisoners, with clear disregard for their condition and, of course, their rights. It has become common that when an expecting female prisoner is taken to hospital, she goes there in handcuffs.

Even before that, not much attention is paid to her dietary and hygiene needs. She eats the same food as the other prisoners, and, as we all know, prison food in Zimbabwe is very poor. There are no systematic arrangements to ensure regular check-ups and necessary medical treatment.

Further, prison officials give scant regard to the need for pregnant inmates to receive counselling, which is vital because of the set-up in which the female prisoner finds herself.

There is no prize for guessing what happens when hospital staff and other patients see the expecting inmates in handcuffs and prison garb. Because the chains and prison uniform are associated with crime, most people are bound to stigmatise the pregnant prisoners.

Nurses are the chief culprits in this regard, as shown by the rude, harsh and inhuman manner in which they treat the prisoners. In their minds, the expecting mothers are the scum of society and do not deserve proper treatment. This, of course, is misplaced and unfortunate. Remember, some of the expecting prisoners, the majority of them perhaps, are still awaiting trial. As the law says, one is innocent until proven guilty.

But then, even if they are convicted criminals, they still retain the right to basic human rights such as food and health. The also deserve respect. A prison, by the way, is supposed to rehabilitate offenders, not condemn them.

The treatment the prisoners are receiving can easily stress the mothers and have negative implications on the health of both the incarcerated mother and the unborn child. Psychologically and emotionally, stigmatisation may affect the relationship between mother and child. It is highly likely that the mother might live with the attitude that her child is not wanted in society, and she might see him/her as a curse long after giving birth.

There is therefore need for prison officials and hospital staff to change their attitude and treat pregnant women delicately, with complete respect for their rights.

Government should devise effective monitoring mechanisms to ensure this.

Post published in: Editor: Wilf Mbanga

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