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



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Common Worries

The women expressed many worries about their children that overlapped into two categories, financial concerns and unease about the type of care their children received.

A social worker at the DCC first mentioned the prevalence of financial concerns:

Sometimes we get letters from the schools or else the mothers initiate and ask us to write to the principals and explain the situation, that they are in prison and they are sentenced for how long and their children have no one to care for them. Because if they are in the correctional center the social grant is stopped. It is for the children, but if the person receiving the grant is in custody, she can't collect the grant. She needs somebody else who is in the community to take over the grant and take care of the children and see to it that their educational and basic needs are met. So sometimes it becomes a problem, especially when the support structure is not available.

The women in the prison named these exact same concerns. They worry that no one will pay school fees so their children will attend bad schools. They fear that there will not be enough money for new school uniforms. When I asked the women to talk about how their incarceration affects their children, many of them mentioned financial difficulties as one of the main ways their absence will harm their children. With the holidays coming up, one woman was particularly worried that no one would buy special food to make the holidays festive.

The women also discussed the worries they felt about what type of care their children would receive while they were in prison. In earlier sessions, the women had said that they were happy with their children's caretakers, but in later sessions, they continuously mentioned a fear that their children would lack proper care and they would not know anything about it. A former inmate put it this way, “I knew my mom was there, but I know my mom couldn't do the same job that I do to my kids, you know?” More than an actual fear that something terrible would happen to their children, the women spoke of a nagging worry that stemmed from lack of regular contact. They would often wonder: Have my children eaten today? Have they bathed? An assignment asked the women to draw the feelings of their children and one of the women left the feet and ears of her child uncolored. When asked why she had not colored his feet and ears, she said it was because she did not know whether he was clean or dirty and therefore did not know what color to use. These worries all came from separation and lack of communication between mothers and children. While the women might trust the people with whom their children are living, they still worry because they cannot be sure that everything is actually fine.

A few women expressed worry about the health of their children. SH's daughter has asthma and SH worries that her current caregivers will be unable to notice the warning signs of an attack. LB also spoke of her children's health as a major concern. While she was in prison, she learned that her daughter had been hospitalized and had an emergency operation to remove fluid from her heart. LB is also worried about the physical safety of her daughter. LB grew up in a children's home and only when to live with her mother when she was 17 years old. That year, while under her mother’s care, she was raped and had a child. At the time of her arrest, LB lived with her young daughter in her mother's house and her son lived with her sister in Durban. Since her incarceration, her children have remained in the homes they lived in prior to their mother’s incarceration. LB feels positively about the situation for her son; she thinks that her sister will care for him well. However, she is very worried about the safety of her daughter. On numerous occasions, LB said that her mother is not a good caregiver because she abuses alcohol. “It is an abusive situation,” she said. On the final day of sessions, LB spoke of a deep fear that her daughter will be raped while under the care of LB's mother. She is especially worried as the holiday season approaches because her mother will drink more during the holidays and fail to pay attention to the safety of LB's daughter. A social worker with the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) spoke of this frightening phenomenon and the way it affects an inmate’s psyche,

Especially for the females who have children who are girls, they are not safe if their parents are not around. There are a number of cases where the children have been abused, sexually. And if you see that happened, if you child is being abused while you are still in prison, you will feel that if you were around, your child would be safe and you will end up blaming yourself for that event.

LB spoke to a social worker and a psychologist who consults at the prison hoping that someone would intervene and move her daughter to a safer environment or allow her an early parole, but the social worker had done nothing to remedy the situation or implement the recommendations of the psychologist when I left the prison.

Most of these worries stem from lack of adequate contact with their children. If the women could communicate with their children on a regular basis, they might feel more at ease about their children’s daily needs. Understanding that the current prison system attempts to both reform and punish inmates for their misdeeds, constant contact with the external world is an unlikely solution. However, the social workers I interviewed both spoke of a need for programs that investigate the living conditions of inmates’ children. The social worker with DCS said that he had personally investigated cases where women claimed the caregivers were mistreating their children. However, the DCS has other concerns and cannot necessarily investigate the living situation of every child. Employees have to remain in the prison and cannot travel around the country. “We rely on programs like Phoenix because they can go out and interact with the community.” (Social Worker Comm Corr). While she misunderstood the actual nature of Phoenix programs (they do not investigate the living conditions of children), the social worker with Comm Corr made it clear that the Department has a need for external programs which have the freedom to investigate the living conditions of inmates’ children and report back to the inmates directly. Knowing that someone regularly checked on their children and reported their findings directly to the mothers would greatly reduce inmates’ worries about their children.






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