Pokhara, Nepal is a major tourist destination, drawing travelers from around the globe who wish to explore the nearby Annapurna mountain range. The center of the town is lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes overlooking the beautiful lake and the spectacular Himalayan peaks in the distance.
Just a short walk from the tourist area of town, however, lies a starkly different place. Kaski Prison, Pokhara houses over 200 male and female prisoners. There are also several young children living at the jail-- in Nepal, a child under the age of 5 whose mother is incarcerated typically lives with her inside the prison. Around the age of 5 these children are usually placed in group homes and foster homes throughout the country by Prisoners’ Assistance Nepal or one of the other organizations in the Network for Children, Prisoners, and Dependents (NCPD).
ICRI Nepal facilitated the formation of NCPD, a coalition of grassroots organizations working to support prisoners and their children, in 2001. We have remained deeply involved with the organization and with its efforts to improve the wellbeing of families impacted by Nepal’s prison system.
In recent years, ICRI Nepal and NCPD have received funding from the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to implement HIV/AIDS prevention, vocational training, and psychosocial support programs at Kaski Prison Pokhara and in prisons elsewhere in Nepal.
I must admit that I had serious qualms about the idea of sending young children into a prison environment, where their health and education would likely be compromised. After visiting Kaski Prison Pokhara and other Nepali jails, however, I looked at the situation in a somewhat different light. Unlike prisons in the United States, which tend to isolate prisoners and discourage group affiliation, the Nepali prisoners live collectively. The prisoners elect their own leaders, are responsible for much of their own care and support, and are encouraged to form affinity groups. The young children residing in the prison freely interact with their mother and form strong attachments to her, and also received copious attention from their numerous “aunties” residing in the same cells.
Despite the hard work of ICRI Nepal, NCPD, and other NGOs, the Nepali prisons I visited were severely overcrowded and living conditions were quite dire. Still, I was so proud of our extremely dedicated ICRI Nepal staff who work in Pokhara, Chitwan, and other locales. They treat all prisoners and their families with dignity and respect, and have worked hard to design new and effective educational programs and income generating projects for the prisoners, such as mushroom farming and candle making. Our UN-funded projects have been highly successful in increasing knowledge, skills, and behavior around HIV risk reduction and general health. They also provide the prisoners with a chance to learn, to increase their skills, and to better provide for their families. As one participating female inmate told me, "sometimes this is the only thing I have to look forward to."
(ICRI Nepal staff working at Kaski Prison Pokhara)