People & Power

Growing Up Behind Bars

People & Power uncovers the harrowing stories of Afghanistan’s prison children.

Hundreds of young children in Afghanistan are being forced to share a jail cell with their mothers; women who in many cases are protesting their innocence or have been convicted of so-called moral crimes.  

Many of those children are facing years behind bars, cut off from the outside world yet themselves completely innocent of any offence.

People & Power  sent filmmakers Mike Healy and Najibullah Quraishi to find out why. 


By Mike Healy

The frequently appalling treatment of women in Afghanistan is a subject that has been well covered by the international media, and quite rightly so: Earlier this year for example, my British-Afghan colleague Najibullah Quraishi and I interviewed women who had been badly beaten and abused by their husbands and their families (including other women), and had no other option but to live secretly in a women’s shelter in Kabul.

One young woman had been stabbed in the head by her husband and had had her fingernails pulled out. When she tried to escape, she was imprisoned for four years by the authorities for the “moral crime” of simply being a woman unaccompanied by a male.

We wanted to know what happened to the young children of such women (even the guilty ones), and Najibullah, using his extensive range of contacts in Afghanistan, secured us access to Jowzjan prison – sometimes referred to as Sheberghan prison, after the town where it’s situated.

A person in this 21st century needs to learn, experience and feel a lot of things in their first years of life so they are equipped to make the right choices and have a positive impact on society. In a prison environment ... they miss out on those experiences.

by Afghan psychologist

As far as we know, no-one has ever gained filming access to this subject before. The prison authorities took some persuading, and were conscious of how they would come across to an international audience, but the fact that this prison is widely seen as the best in northern Afghanistan meant that, relatively speaking, they had less to hide.

Here the staff genuinely seemed to have personal connections with the female inmates, and living conditions – though clearly very basic – were relatively bearable. But we also heard reports of prisons in other areas where staff abuse and even rape the women under their guard.

Once we got there, perhaps the biggest surprise was just how young the majority of the children were. But actually it made sense that the very youngest children including newborns in need of the greatest care remained with their mothers – in prison.

When the fathers have to travel hundreds of miles to find work, it is left to relatives to care for the children who remain outside prison. One father described how he is forced to lock his children in the house for their own safety while he is out working. Even when they are at home, they are imprisoned.

However, in a country where reputation is everything, the children of prisoners are often disowned and left to live off the streets. Needless to say, these children are more vulnerable to dangers such as drug addiction, and inevitably, crime.

On the inside, the children growing up in prison are desensitised to their environment and likely under the influence of genuine criminals. Inside or out, the system encourages criminality and despair.

The numbers of figures involved are difficult to estimate, especially as the children may have spells in prison followed by time with relatives outside, but its thought to be in the hundreds at least. There are also orphanages and children’s centres throughout Afghanistan, some of them excellent, like the USAID-funded centre in Mazar-e-Sharif, but others of a poor standard where abuse is rife. It is understandable if incarcerated mothers are reluctant to trust their babies to the care of strangers miles away.

We interviewed a local psychologist on the subject. He described how vulnerable children will struggle to understand their predicament. For example, if their mothers insist that they are innocent and yet they are living in jail, this will give them a skewed understanding of morality and justice, and a lack of motivation therefore to be good citizens.

In addition, they may come to resent their own mothers for the lives they have given them. And even if the mothers were innocent to begin with, they may become damaged and cynical parents as the years pass. Both mothers and children may eventually become institutionalised and feel safer behind the prison walls, especially when life outside is so harsh.

It is the very youngest who have most to lose, never seeing hills, rivers or streets, or meeting new people. 

As the psychologist says: “A person in this 21st century needs to learn, experience and feel a lot of things in their first years of life so they are equipped to make the right choices and have a positive impact on society. In a prison environment, with every day that passes, they miss out on those experiences.”