Sarah Moyo, 24 - not her real name - clasps her stunted one-year-old child to her chest as she talks to her visiting husband through a chain-link fence at the Central Remand Prison, on the eastern fringe of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare.
Moyo has spent three months awaiting trial for throwing scalding water on her husband's lover, and she forces a smile at him and the two female friends accompanying him on the lunchtime visit.
Ignoring his two friends she fixes her gaze on her husband and says: "The child tends to vomit all the time I give him the food from prison. It would be better if the prison officials allowed you to bring along good food for the baby, because he could get sick any time and I wouldn't know what to do with him."
Zimbabwean jails have not escaped the country's decade-long economic malaise and food is in short supply. A prison official who declined to be identified told IRIN that diseases such as tuberculosis and kwashiorkor, which affects mainly children and is caused by severe protein malnutrition, and pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease, were prevalent.
Moyo told IRIN that the three months of incarceration were taking their toll on her and the child. "I just wish I could have a good lawyer who will successfully apply for bail for me - raising a child in this situation is like living in hell," she said.
Inside the high walls crowned with razor wire, prison officers keenly watch the visitors and inmates; a woman in the compound sits and prays beside her coughing child of about two years, another woman prisoner breastfeeds her daughter while talking in hushed tones to a man.
|Five mothers did not come out to meet their relatives today because they are in the prison hospital, since they or their children are seriously ill|
Adults, juveniles and mothers with babies share the same jail, awaiting trial for crimes ranging from murder to pick-pocketing. "There are about 15 mothers with children whose ages range from just-born babies to five-year-olds," the prison official told IRIN.
"Five mothers did not come out to meet their relatives today because they are in the prison hospital, since they or their children are seriously ill."
One of the "longest serving" child inmates is a four-year-old, born within days of the mother being remanded; the prison officer said she was awaiting trial in the overcrowded prison for murder.
"The prison tries as much as possible to provide baby food to the children living with their mothers, and some well-wishers have stepped in to supply the food, but it quickly runs out and there is a general shortage. In some cases, the mothers feed on their babies' food because they are also starving," the official said.
"I have worked at several prisons in the last seven years and the situation is pretty much the same in all jails. Children living with their imprisoned mothers are in a sorry state; they are serving sentences for crimes they never committed."
In nearby Harare Prison, where those convicted of their crimes serve their sentences, infants share crowded cells with their mothers until they are four years old; they are then placed in a juvenile section and regularly visit their mothers, a prison officer at the jail, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
"The mothers do their laundry and sometimes feed those in the juvenile section, but there are cases where the fathers successfully apply to have the children under their custody," the prison officer said.
"Where fathers do not come forward to claim their children, some foster homes accept the children, and we are more than ready to let them go because there are no resources to sustain them here."
There are also no educational facilities for the children and the official admitted that when they fell ill, prison doctors sometimes failed to react quickly enough. "I have a feeling that most of the children who die here could have survived if they enjoyed better health facilities," the official commented.
Most of the children who died in prison were given pauper burials, either because their next of kin was not known, or families did not offer to pay for their burial.
Sebastian Chenhaire, of the Zimbabwe Network of People Living with AIDS (ZNNP+), told IRIN that AIDS activists viewed the plight of children jailed with their mothers as a "serious problem" because their living conditions made it difficult for those who were HIV positive to obtain treatment.
"We are extremely concerned because it is a known fact that some of the children are born in prison to [HIV-]positive mothers and they also have the virus, while others go into the prisons already sick."
"Many positive children are dying in prison because they are failing to access treatment, and it is the responsibility of the government to make antiretroviral therapy accessible to them," Chenhaire said.
"It is also desirable to place jailed mothers on community service for offences that are not serious, and to consider putting others in open prisons where they can access treatment and other facilities more easily."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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