JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Zakirullah, a 9-year-old boy, is one of hundreds of Afghan children in prison because their mothers are. Even his dreams seem bound to the cellblock.
“I dreamed last night that someone had kidnapped me, and you came and rescued me, and you fought with them and defeated them,” he told one of the guards recently, tugging on the man’s belt to get him to pay attention. The boy’s white shirt had turned a pale brown from lack of laundering, and it hung loose over his ragged pants.
“That’s good, I guess,” replied the guard, a tall man with a silvery beard who is known for his avuncular manner with the dozens of children in the prison.
“And then you gave us a tip!” the boy said, hugging the guard’s leg as they both laughed.
They were in Nangarhar Provincial Prison’s women’s wing, where 43 children are incarcerated with their mothers, 25 of them of school age.
Among them is Meena, 11, the daughter of the serial killer Shirin Gul, who is serving a life sentence and refuses to let her daughter leave the prison, holding Meena’s freedom hostage to her own.
Like Meena and the others, Zakirullah is likely to spend much of his childhood held with his mother, the victim of a system that allows convicts to decide the fates of their young children, who often have nowhere else to go.
A survey of Afghan prisons this month by The New York Times concluded that at least 333 children are imprisoned with their mothers nationwide, according to interviews with officials at 33 of the country’s 34 provincial prisons.
Of those 333 children, 103 of them are older than 5, the age at which they are eligible for transfer to orphanages. The total does not include children in juvenile detention for crimes of their own.
Many of these Afghan women are locked up for so-called social crimes — often offenses that would not be crimes in most countries, like running away from their husbands, committing adultery (or often merely being accused of it) or refusing to submit to abusive practices like forced marriage.
“Many of the women in prison are there on the account of moral crimes, often as a result of being victims of forced marriage or domestic violence,” said Denise Shepherd-Johnson, Unicef’s chief of communication, advocacy and civic engagement.
In Kabul’s now-closed Badam Bagh women’s prison, during a rare and unauthorized visit by The New York Times in 2014, 65 percent of the women there were imprisoned on morals charges.
The children caught up in their mothers’ cases have few options.
While there are four orphanages that accept children older than 5 whose mothers are imprisoned, they are already filled to capacity. There are 356 children, most of them ages 5 to 18, in the four homes, known as child support centers.
And for various reasons, many parts of the country do not send children to them. Nangarhar Province in the east, seat of the country’s fifth largest city, Jalalabad, is one that does not.
Efforts to persuade the provincial authorities to sign up for the orphanage program have been unsuccessful, according to Najia Nasim, the country director of Women for Afghan Women, which runs the program. The women’s wing of the Nangarhar prison, as of early December, had 42 women with 43 children; 25 of those children were over 5, according to the official in charge there, Col. Mohammad Asif.
Many other places have child prisoners as well. Kandahar’s notorious Sarposa Prison, often derided as a Taliban recruiting camp, holds 22 children with their mothers, according to the deputy warden, Saifurahman Urakhail. Helmand Provincial Prison has 12, its deputy warden, Raz Mohammad, said. In Herat Province, 152 women are locked up, along with 40 of their children, many of them over 5, according to the prison’s media manager, Mohammad Kabil Saiyar.
Even in Kabul, which has the country’s biggest child support center, the Pul-e-Charki prison women’s wing has 53 children, 25 of them over age 5. The Afghan Interior Ministry, which runs the prison system, recently refused a request from The New York Times to visit Pul-e-Charki prison, according to spokesman Najib Danish. (This year Kabul’s women-only prison, Badam Bagh, was closed, and female inmates relocated to Pul-e-Charki.)
There has been hardly any international outcry about this specific problem, despite heavy investment in nearly every aspect of Afghanistan’s relief and aid programs. Western governments, international agencies and the Afghan government have formed the Child Protection Action Network to advocate on behalf of children in general.
“It’s a massive need to have more of these support centers,” said the network’s director, Bashir Ahmad Basharat. “An orphanage would be better for them. As it is now, they’re growing up with criminals, so they learn how to be criminals, and when they do get out, they’ll be a threat to society.”
But the Afghan government does not have the resources to expand the support center program, and the international community has shown little interest.
Save the Children in Afghanistan is one of the international aid groups listed as a CPAN supporter. The spokeswoman for Save the Children, one of the largest aid groups operating here, was dismissive.
“We’re not really involved with children who are in prison with their mothers,” said Mariam Atahi. “We don’t have any idea or any statements about this. We are not going to talk about it because it belongs to criminals, mothers who are involved in crimes.”
Many countries and even some states in America allow very young children to stay in jail with their mothers, but usually only for the children’s first few years; even remaining to age 5 is unusual. Staying past school age is rare. A United Nations General Assembly resolution in 2010 recommended that “decisions to allow children to stay with their mothers in prison shall be based on the best interests of the children,” and “children in prison with their mothers shall never be treated as prisoners.”
Unicef, which also has a major presence in Afghanistan and is another participant in CPAN work, said it had no data on how many children were imprisoned with their mothers. But Ms. Shepherd-Johnson, the Unicef official, said their plight was “an area of concern for Unicef here in Afghanistan and in other countries, too.”
She referred questions about what was being done for such children to the Afghan official in charge of the issue, Wahidullah Jahadi, the Child Act project manager in the Ministry of Justice.
Mr. Jahadi said the imprisonment of children was unavoidable. “A prison is not a place to keep kids, but sometimes we don’t have other options,” Mr. Jahadi said. “If a mother is in the prison, the kids have to be with the mothers.”
Facilities for older children in adult prisons are scant. While the Nangarhar prison has a one-room school for the children there, it offers only an hour of instruction a day and only through third grade. In addition, according to Colonel Asif, their schoolroom has not been staffed for the last month, the final month of the school year, because of an unexplained absence by the teacher, and no substitute for her.
For Zakirullah, the boy in the Jalalabad prison, little is likely to change without outside intervention. He has already been in the prison for a year, along with his mother, Sediqa, who was one of a minority of women there not held for social crimes. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison for murder. Her son will turn 18 before she reaches the end of her term.
Zakirullah’s situation is more complicated than most jailed children’s. He alternates weeks outside prison in his father’s custody and inside with his mother.
Sediqa was convicted of murdering Zakirullah’s half sister in their family home.