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

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“People find it so difficult to visit their relatives in prison. So people in prison don't see their relatives until they are released” (Social Worker Comm Corr). This was true for the women in “Starting with Us.” Only a few of the women had visits from family members, but the majority had not seen their children since before their incarceration. Some of the women said their children did not visit because the prison is too far away from their homes, other said family does not visit because they do not know the woman is in prison. For those lucky few who had visits from family members, the visits themselves could be stressful situations. The DCS considers family visits privileges, meaning officials can grant or take away visitation rights depending on the behavior of a particular inmate. “The A Group, they have the privilege of meeting their visitors for 45 minutes per day on the visitation days. Then for the B Groups I think it is 30 minutes for them” (Social Worker DCS). That means the maximum amount of time an incarcerated mother could spend with her children would be 45 minutes a week, hardly the necessary time to develop or maintain a healthy relationship. A social worker at DCS acknowledged this, “it's not so much a mother-child relationship to see the child 45 minutes in a week. That must be very stressful.”

Beyond the time limitations for visits, the visitation facilities leave much to be desired. If an inmate is part of B Group, the prison denies them all contact visits; instead, they see their children from the other side of a glass wall. “I used to speak with them and they were on the other side. So there are holes in the glass where you can talk with them. Then after six months, I was given an A, then I will go around and sit with that. So that only happens after you are in six months and good behavior and all that” (former inmate). Even the visits themselves present a difficulty for inmates.

If women do not see their children while they are in prison, do they do anything else to stay in communication? The women in “Starting with Us” agreed that telephone calls are the only option to stay in contact with their family. The former inmate said, “Telephonically, that was the only way I could communicate with them. Otherwise, other than that, there was absolutely nothing else.” Many of the women relied on phone calls as the only way to contact their children. Some of the women in the group did not even have the luxury of phone calls because they did not know a number where they could reach their family or did not have enough money for phone cards. One of the women had absolutely no contact with her children since the beginning of her incarceration five months before. Since she did not have their contact information, the only way she could communicate with them would be through a social worker with the DCS, but the social worker had not responded to her request for information.

Lack of communication leads to stress and worry and causes the mothers to doubt their relationship with their children. Even though she called her children as often as each weekend, the former inmate said that it was impossible to maintain the type of relationship she had with her children when she was out of prison and she had to work very hard to reestablish that relationship after her release.

It is clear that these women need some sort of program to facilitate contact between themselves and their children. The social worker with Comm Corr said the best indicator of a successful reentry into society is whether an inmate had regular visits from family members. “The women I have seen doing good were the ones who saw their boyfriends or husbands while they were in prison. Then they got out and their boyfriends supported them and they got married and raised children. And the children are normal children, just like any others in the community.” If family contact has such a great effect on inmates, why are there no programs that help establish that contact? Apparently, such a program used to exist. “NICRO used to provide that opportunity. They used to organize on buses to travel to a prison a little bit far away, but unfortunately NICRO was running out of funds to fund that program.” (Social Worker DCS). Phoenix also provides this service to a certain extent. It covers transportation cost for family members of inmates who participate in the program “Conversations with Families” which culminates in a family conference where the family members come to the prison. However, that program does not even begin to cover the need for contact between mothers and children.

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