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

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Mothers in Prison

This first section will look at information gathered regarding mothers in Eshowe Correctional Facility. What are their main concerns? How do they feel about being mothers? What coping methods do they use to deal with the stress of separation from their children? It will highlight the contradictions between what the women say about their understanding of motherhood and their lived experience of being an incarcerated mother.

There were five participants and one peer-facilitator in the “Starting with Us” sessions. The women were quite young, all but one were between the ages of 22 and 24 and the eldest turned 31 during the program. All six of these women were mothers who had children living outside the prison facilities. The women had either one or two children on average, although one woman had been caring for five children at the time of her arrest. The average age of their children was only six years. The women were incarcerated for various crimes, most commonly shoplifting, but also fraud and assault. Two of the women said this was their first time in prison and two said it was their third time.

When women go to prison, they face the difficult process of placing their child into the care of another person. They usually have three valid options: entrust their children in the care of an extended family member, put their children into a state institution or foster home, or abandon their children and hope they will be able to care for themselves. External circumstances usually dictate what will happen with the child regardless of the mother’s preference. A social worker at Community Corrections lamented the difficulty of this process, “The external family support structure is usually broken. You don't find a family member who is willing or who is keen to take the children to be with her.” In order to understand fully the difficulty of this situation, one must look at the factor of time. These women do not have time to sit down and have a conversation with their family about what will happen with their children. Upon arrest, they are taken immediately into custody and might not be able to communicate with the outside world for a few weeks. During that time, they have to trust that someone will step in and take responsibility of their children. One participant spoke of her arrest. She never addressed the issue with her mother because she did not want to tell her mother that she engaged in illegal activities. When she was arrested, she just had to trust that her mother would take care of her children “because she is that kind of person.” What would have happened if she and her children had not been living with her mother at the time of her arrest? “I would have gone insane. More than I was when I was in prison knowing that my mom was going to look after my kids. But I was a mess. But I think what really happens to women, they start to stress over things because they know that no one is really there to look after their kids.”

Within the “Starting with Us” group, the vast majority had left their children with family members. Some of the children were staying with the inmate's sibling, mother, grandmother, and one woman had left her children in the care of their paternal grandparents. Only one woman, NE3, lacked an external support system to provide for her children. When NE was arrested, she was caring for not only her eight-year-old son, but also the four children of her deceased sister. She had not been able to find someone else to care for them and now they are in the care of the eldest child, age 22.

Despite their worries about their children, all but one of the women said that they were happy about their children's caregivers. Many said that they were happy because they knew that their children would be well cared for while they were in prison. The only major issue arose with one of the women, LB.4

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