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

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Limitations of the Study

As with any study, my research project had a number of limitations, namely time, language, prison rules and environment, and cultural differences.

Time was a big issue in this study. I was only in Eshowe for two weeks and my time within the prison was limited. Generally, Phoenix can only run programs Tuesday-Thursday, as the prison is often understaffed around the weekend and therefore stricter about visitors. We were lucky in that we had access to the prison both of the Fridays during my field-study period. However, even with access to the prison four days a week, I felt that I did not have enough time with the inmates. Each of our sessions were limited to less than two hours, sometimes less than an hour, meaning that our discussions were often cut off before their natural end. Originally, we had hoped for two sessions a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, but because of a music program within the prison, we were limited to only morning sessions. I suppose every researcher feels that they could research a topic forever and only just skim the surface of the issue, and given that my research period was only two weeks long, I actually gathered a lot of information.

The second limitation I encountered was the language barrier. All the women in the group were isiZulu speakers. Most of them understood a little English, but they felt much more comfortable speaking in isiZulu. During our first meeting, Nonceba and the peer-facilitator encouraged the women to speak in English whenever possible for my benefit, but that rarely happened. Nonceba and Lamo both acted as wonderful translators, but even the best of translations lose some meaning. Translations also made it impossible for me to record exact quotes from the women during most of the sessions because Nonceba and Lamo gave me the general meaning of their comments rather than a word-for-word translation. On many occasions, I left the prison with the distinct feeling that I would have understood a lot more of what transpired if I spoke isiZulu.

The prison rules presented another deterrent to my research. Understandably, prisons are weary of visitors and keep a watchful eye on any unusual activity. They have rules prohibiting the use of recording equipment and cameras as well as rules about when we could enter the facility and when we had to leave. These limited the kind of information I could gather as I could not record the sessions and instead had to rely on my handwritten notes. The DCS members were in control of our sessions. They could come over at any point in the session and tell us it was time to leave, or they could let us carry on until we reached the end of our activities for the day. The prison environment also limited the type of information I could gather. While we were usually in a private room for our sessions, sometimes we had to hold our meetings outside in the courtyard. This made conversation, particularly personal conversation, difficult because other people, inmates as well as DCS members, were in close proximity.

Finally, cultural differences presented an issue. I call them cultural differences for lack of a better description. What I mean is that the women were reluctant to discuss certain issues. Sometimes it was almost painful to pull answers out, meaning that our “discussions” were more in the form of answering a question around in the circle rather than engaging with one another. This was very different from my experience when I went to a “Starting with Us” graduation in the male section of Eshowe Correctional Center. The men were much more assertive and willing to voice their opinions.

I have my own opinions of the criminal justice system, many rooted in my understanding of the system in the United States. I do not agree that imprisonment effectively reduces criminal behavior and feel that it rather reproduces criminality by forcing individuals to live separate from society and forever carry a black mark on their record. While my biases might not hold true in the South African context, I cannot sever them from myself. Therefore, I entered this project with a bias against the prison system. Although I tried not to let this affect my work, I must acknowledge its presence before I can discuss my findings with a clear(er) conscience.

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