Objectives To describe the problems faced by children during separation from their imprisoned mothers, and evaluate the health of children who accompanied their mothers into prison.
Design A prospective observational study
Setting Welikada Prison, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Methods 200 randomly selected mothers who had left their children at home were interviewed using a questionnaire. During a period of 8 months 30 children living with their mothers in prison underwent physical and developmental examination and tuberculin testing. The living conditions within the prison were evaluated.
Results During 18 months from January 1999,4089 women were imprisoned. 88% were remanded, 20% awaited trial for more than one year in prison. 2416 were mothers. 1411 had at least one child under 12 years of age. The 200 mothers interviewed had 262 children under 12 years at home. Their care arrangements were: a relative (69%), father (16%), older sibling (4%), religious organisation (2.7%), neighbour (1.3%). None had received social services support. 70 children accompanied mothers into prison. In the 30 children followed up regularly 23% had scabies, 10% pediculosis, and 7% impetigo. No severe malnutrition was found and screening for tuberculosis was negative. 70% were breastfed. The child-friendly dormitory was inadequate to accommodate all children.
Conclusion Care arrangements and schooling were affected and no counselling services were provided during the imprisoned mothers' absence. The children within the prison enjoyed close bonds with the mothers and their physical needs were met. The child's best interest had not always been considered by court when deciding on custody during the mothers' imprisonment.