Over half of all incarcerated women in Germany have kids. Authorities think it is sometimes better for small children to remain with their mothers, in special prison wards.
Children under three can stay with their mothers in prison
In Frankfurt's women's prison, a brightly colored building in the middle of the grounds is somewhat different to the rest of the jail. Although still surrounded by a meter-high barbed-wire fence, this center is the mother-and-child wing of the prison.
In the German penal system, it is often thought better for children under three years old to stay with their mothers in prison, rather than being put into foster care. However, facilities like the one in Frankfurt are not available nationwide and are often in high demand.
Kids live in the cells too
Educator Klaus Hermes is in charge of the mother-and-child ward of Frankfurt prison. They only take children under three years old, as it is thought that after this age, kids should not grow up behind bars.
"The goal is to avoid the separation of mother and child," Hermes said.
Working closely with the local child protection agency, Hermes examines each case individually while the mothers - or mothers-to-be - are still in pre-trial detention, that is before they has yet been convicted and a jail term pronounced. If a mother has a drug habit or is doing a lifetime stretch in prison, children are automatically put into foster care.
Martina and Damien
Frankfurt prison has catered for mothers and children for years
For one 27-year-old woman, the special ward means she gets to see her son grow and develop despite living behind bars. Martina - whose name we have changed to protect her identity - is serving a nine-year sentence for attempted murder. Her son, Damien, was born in custody, and both mother and child were given a place in the ward, sharing a cell.
The jail nursery teachers ensure that Damien gets to know the world beyond his barred windows, taking him shopping and on outings.
It's hard for Damien's mother. "All his first life experiences he has not done with me," she said. "I wasn't with him for his first time in a swimming pool or his first trip to the zoo."
Beatrix Deinhard has worked in the jail for 19 years
Beatrix Deinhard has been a nursery teacher in the Frankfurt women's prison for 19 years. She knows how hard it is for incarcerated mothers to leave their children with another person. And over time it gets worse.
"As children get older, the gap between their childhood experiences and what their mothers miss grows bigger," Deinhard said.
Visits to the doctor in hospital are a prime example of when it is difficult for the children to leave their mothers.
"The children often cry, and then it is really hard for the mothers to let go of the children," she said.
An element of normality
In the special ward, the mothers can play, paint and sing with their children and have access to the educational assistants in the facility.
Playtime in prison aims to be as normal as possible
Beatrix Deinhard argues that when mothers maintain a good relationship with the staff, the children can develop normally and "it does them no harm."
"When there is a problem, I think it comes from an external environment, from where the mother and child come from," Deinhard said.
She adds that the system works so long as the children do not get "too old."
For Martina, she is acutely aware that as her son grows up he becomes more inquisitive about his surroundings.
She has often tried to explain to him why they live in the prison.
"But then he asks, if you were naughty and sent to prison, does that mean I was naughty too?" she said.
It is questions like these that weigh heavily on Martina's shoulders. However, she is now pinning her hopes on being granted early release in three years and finally getting to spend time with her son beyond the prison walls.
Author: Claudia Hennen (cb)
Editor: Nancy Isenson