Moms behind bars: what it means to be a mother in eshowe correctional center

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In South Africa, it is very difficult for a researcher to gain access to prisons. The Department of Correctional Services severely limits research within the prisons. Therefore, I completed this study as an attachment to Phoenix Zululand, a restorative justice program working within multiple prisons within Zululand. Phoenix is a non-governmental organization that leads a number of specific programs with inmates. The programs address issues of self-esteem, conflict resolution, environmental understanding, and family reconciliation and bonding. It works under the mandate of the 2004 White Paper on Corrections, which maintains that “the participation of the community in strengthening and enhancing rehabilitation is crucial” and that “entry into the Department for purposes of rendering services must be regulated yet made easy.”

My methodology took two main paths: sessions with a group of female inmates and interviews.

Methodology A: “Starting with Us” Sessions

During the two-week period that I lived in Eshowe, I attended seven sessions of Phoenix's program, “Starting with Us,” a program which aspires to develop self-awareness and skills for living within the participants. This program is the first that inmates can complete with Phoenix and allows them to continue with other Phoenix programs and potentially becoming a peer facilitator (an inmate that leads programs within the prison). The whole program consists of 15 sessions, which take place over a period of up to six weeks. Usually the participants meet for an hour or two each morning and complete one session a day. Each session deals with a different issue, including the stages of grief, controlling emotions, dealing with conflict, and restoring relationships.

For my first week in the prison, November 1-November 4, I attended the introductory session and the beginning sessions entitled, “Ourselves/ Our Stories” and “Being in Prison.” In each of these sessions, I participated in a fashion similar to the female inmates. I shared my own stories when asked particular questions and contributed to the discussions, but I did not lead the group in any defining way. I explained to the women in the first session why I was there and what I would be doing. I also asked them if they would feel comfortable with me taking notes during the session and assured them that they could tell me if there was anything they did not want me to write down. I also told them that I would not use their names in either my paper or my notes.1 They acknowledged that they understood and said that it would be fine if I took notes. During each of these first three sessions I took notes in a notebook. Each afternoon when we returned from the prison I would type up my notes and add anything I had not written down at the time. From these sessions, I gathered background information about the women and established a rapport with them.

I began to lead sessions my second week in the prison. The typical “Starting with Us” program contains one session devoted to the issue of parenting, specifically the difficulties of parenting while in prison. As part of my research, I expanded this session to cover a period of four days, from November 8 to November 11. Using the original session as a guideline, I designed these sessions as a period of discussion where I would ask questions for personal reflection and for my research purposes.2 I personally led these sessions, with the translation help of Nonceba Lushaba, the director of Phoenix Zululand.

My group for “Starting with Us” consisted of five female inmates, all mothers, and a peer-facilitator who was also a mother. Each of these women had children outside prison. The sessions lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on how strict the DCS members were feeling on that particular day. Overall, I spent about ten hours with the group of incarcerated mothers.

Methodology B: Interviews

In addition to leading sessions on parenting with the women in Eshowe Correctional Center, I conducted a series of interviews. My first interview was with an incarcerated mother who had her baby with her in the prison. This interview took place on November 1, my first day in the prison. The interview was largely informal. After I explained to her the reason for my research and asked if she would feel comfortable speaking with me, we sat side-by-side in the waiting room of the prison and talked about her experience as a mother who gave birth while incarcerated. As the DCS prohibits the use of recording devices in the prison, I recorded her answers in writing.

I also conducted three more formal interviews. I interviewed the social worker from Community Corrections, a division within the DCS, a social worker within the Department of Correctional Services, and a former inmate and current Phoenix facilitator who dealt with the issues I wanted to explore. I consider these interviews more formal because I had a set list of questions, I recorded each of these interviews and they took place in a more formal area (the offices of the social workers and a restaurant). Each of these interviews lasted about an hour. Before each of these formal interviews, I explained the nature of my study and asked the interviewee to read and sign an informed consent form. None of them expressed a problem with the interview or the nature of my study.

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