Every week, an inmate, 45, wakes up early to go to the nursery at Dubai Central Jail. Wearing a maroon uniform and headscarf, she rushes to say goodbye to her children before they board a school bus.
When she was incarcerated in September 2014, her son was only 1 and her daughter 2.
“I made just one request to the police: to let me keep my children. I didn’t have a choice because I don’t have a family here,” she said.
Now, eight years later, her children are enrolled in a school in Dubai. She proudly shows their academic certificates.
“My daughter always gets A+ grades. She is very good at her studies. She wants to become a teacher of Islamic studies and the Quran. And my son wants to join the police,” she says with a laugh.
The National visited Dubai Central Jail in Al Aweer, which houses more than 300 women and 29 children.
Imprisoned mothers are given an opportunity to see, raise and educate their children while they serve prison sentences.
All the women wear the same maroon uniform and are categorised by the colour of stripes in their clothing ― red, yellow, blue or green. The ones with red have committed more serious offences and those with green are serving shorter sentences.
Col Jamila Al Zaabi, director of the women’s prison, said the children are there at the request of the mothers and because they have nowhere else to go.
“We don’t prefer that a child grows up in prison,” she said. "He should ideally have a normal life, outside.
“We ask the mother to have her family collect the child but most of them say there’s no one to take care of them. So, we accept the child after we receive a letter from the prosecution.”
Col Al Zaabi said if a child is aged under 2 when a mother first enters prison, the child undergoes a medical examination with a doctor at the prison’s clinic.
"We believe at that age a child needs his mother," she said "So, he lives with his mother in the jail ward. There’s a separate ward for mothers.
“In case the mother is not in the right state of mind, depressed or not able to accept the baby, we take care of the infant and gradually help the inmate accept the baby.”
Children older than 2 are accommodated in a separate nursery that has 10 nannies and four support staff and the mother can visit the child daily.
Two policewomen who wear civilian clothes also monitor the well-being of the children and doctors and nurses are on-call round the clock.
“It’s an impressionable age and we do not want the child to build bad memories or develop bad habits," Col Al Zaabi said. "This is why we keep them away from the prison environment."
Nineteen of the prison’s children are below the age of 2 and live with their mothers. Ten reside in the nursery, five of whom are above the age of 5 and enrolled in school. The prison provides free education, clothes, food and health care.
When a child is sick or hurt, the nannies are required to inform the prison officials immediately.
A day in the nursery
The nursery has separate areas for playing, studying, dining and sleeping.
On the day The National visited, one inmate, 25, was with her 4-year-old daughter, who was born during her incarceration.
“I didn’t mean to bring her here but when I was sentenced for seven years, I was pregnant,” the inmate said.
For children who are born in prison, their details are shared with the Ministry of Health to prepare a birth certificate. The child is seen by doctors and receives everything from vaccines to food to nappies.
“I am very grateful for all the facilities offered in prison," the inmate said. "They never asked me to pay for any of my daughter’s needs.
"They ensure she receives education and that’s paramount for me. At the age of 4, she can read and speak. I am proud that I have a daughter."
Visitors are not allowed in prison as part of efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Instead, inmates can speak to their families using Skype.
Training for a better life
The women’s prison offers various skill development programmes, including arts and crafts. The aim is to develop their talent and self-confidence so they can make a living after they leave prison.
“She’s a woman, she's a mother," Col Al Zaabi explained. "She's the one who's building communities. If she isn’t right, nothing will be right. So, we're trying our best to help her.
“We have so many examples of ladies who made us proud. A former inmate now sells abayas, another designs cupcakes.
"The prison sentence is like an academic period for them. They learn things here so that when they go outside, they return to a changed life.”
Col Al Zaabi said prison officials have two main challenges while raising children in prison.
“The first is when a child leaves us after many years, it’s really painful for us to say bye to him," she said. "We raise them like our own children.
“Secondly, for school-going children, we don’t want their classmates to know their mother is an inmate. So, we choose a woman and call her the mother of the child. She would go to the school with them, whenever needed. Thankfully this arrangement has worked out so far.”
Strong advocates of education
The goal is to make the children feel no different from other children, Col Al Zaabi said. Steps are being taken to ensure they can look forward to a brighter future.
“Our leaders are strong advocates of education,” Col Al Zaabi. said "They are building schools not only in Dubai but in other countries as well. Then how can children coming from here, the heart of Dubai, not go to school? Our government is supporting them in every way.
“When a child tomorrow receives a certificate, you will not believe how happy he is and how education changed him."
All the hard work doesn’t go without appreciation.
“Every day the children would say ‘thank you’ to me,” Col Al Zaabi said.
“When they say ‘thank you’, I feel like my heart is squeezing. You know how much they appreciate going to school, how they appreciate feeling like normal children? They can play. They can talk, they have friends of different nationalities. They are proud of us and we are proud of them.
“One of the girls in our nursery, she's number one in her class. She's the best. That's why we're very happy because we can make them happy. God willing, they will do good things for this country or even for their countries.”
The names and crimes of the inmates have been omitted at the request of Dubai Police.