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

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Coping Methods

With all the stress of separation and worries about their children, I wanted to discover whether these women had developed any strategies to deal with the pain of their situation. The women said that when they felt sad they would read the Bible or look at family photographs and try to have hope for the future. Another common strategy involved sleeping to block out all the pain. During one session, the peer-facilitator asked the women if they like nighttime or daytime better in the prison. Most of the women said they prefer the night because they are able to sleep and forget about all their problems and fears.

The women all agreed that talking about their problems with other people did not help. The former inmate said, “When I was sad it never helped me to talk to other people... Whatever pain I had I never used to share it. I would read or write in a diary. It helped to talk about it in writing. I knew that no one could help ease that pain, so I wrote it down.” I asked the rest of the women in the group if they agreed with that statement and they all nodded their heads. “It's better to keep quiet,” they said. These women feared talking about their personal issues with others because they worried that other women in the prison would not take their pain seriously and might laugh at them or make a joke out of their situation.

Ultimately, I found that these women had not developed any methods to deal with the pain the experienced from their separation from their children. Some of them used diaries for catharsis, but many simply escaped the pain through sleep. Despite the prevalence of mothers in Eshowe Correctional Facility, the women did not discuss their feelings with each other; they each dealt with their suffering in isolation. Hopefully, the women will be able to discuss their problems with the “Starting with Us” group and find ways to comfort each other. This lack of communal support within the prison makes it clear that the prison should implement some sort of therapy or support group. The DCS prides itself on “rehabilitation,” but rehabilitation programs will not work if an inmate is in a constant state of worry and pain. In order to help these women, NGOs or the DCS needs to provide professional support for their emotional needs.

Thoughts about Release

Not only does prison place a severe strain on incarcerated mothers while they are imprisoned, it continues to affect their life even when they leave. First, they must regain custody of their children. This could include tracking them down if they have moved since the incarceration, taking steps with the government to remove the children from state care, or even legal battles. The social worker with DCS said that sometimes women are unable to get their children back after their release from prison. “The problem is when the agreement was a gentleman's agreement. That is when you say, 'I'll take care of your child because you are my sister.” And when you get out I will tell you, 'You are an offender, why do you want to take care? What are you going to teach the children?'” He said that these women are unable to regain custody of their children, despite the legal basis for their claim. “Our Act in South Africa states very clearly that when one parent is deceased, the remaining parent has the full right to take care of the child.... So by law those offenders have the rights to win the custody of the child. But unfortunately they lack that knowledge and they turn to give up on getting custody of the child.” Clearly, inmates need a program that can teach them their legal rights regarding custody issues.

Custody issues are only the first step for inmates upon their release, the next step is the difficult process of rebuilding a strong relationship with their children. The women had mixed feelings about returning to their children. While they said they felt happy about going back to their families, many also expressed fear that their children would be disappointed in them and that they would have lost all authority. “Maybe it shift the minds of my children, you know. Our mother was teaching us this thing and now she is doing the opposite thing” (former inmate). The former inmate said that the most important step to take with children is to restore their trust, which one can only achieve through complete honesty. The women agreed that they wanted to restore trust and they would do that by spending lots of time with their children and being honest with them.

One of the biggest questions for the women in my group was whether they should tell their children the truth about their incarceration. In the group of six women, half had not told their children that they were in prison and planned to keep their incarceration a secret. SH told her five-year-old daughter that she was in college rather than tell her that SH was in prison. She maintained the lie even when her daughter came to visit her in the glass-separated visitation facilities. Other women tell their children that they are working and cannot come home because the boss is very strict. Within our group, some of the women thought this was a good option. They said their children were too young to understand fully what it meant to be in prison and they worried that their children would see them differently if they told the truth, “They will see you as a hardened criminal rather than their mother.” Others worried about their ruined reputation if their child told other people in the neighborhood.

The other half of the group maintained that it is very important to tell children the truth. LB said she wanted to tell her children the truth because she thought they would find out anyway and it would be better if it came from her. She also feared that if she told them she had been working she would be trapped in a lie for the rest of her life. In our last meeting, I asked the group if there was anything else they wanted to discuss. LB brought up the issue of telling the truth again. She said it always better to tell the truth. The former inmate explained how she told her children the truth. “It was very hard to explain over the phone, but I just arranged with her so she could come over the weekend to visit me so that I can find a way to explain. It was a terrible place anyway to explain what you have done to your children, but I told them. Even my little one.” Despite her insistence that mothers in prison should share their true location with their children, she understands how difficult it is for women to overcome the fear of rejection from their children and their communities.

It is interesting that although the women all expressed a desire to rebuild their relationships with their children and regain their children's trust; only half of them thought they would tell their children the truth about their incarceration. The rest of the women wanted to keep it a secret that they spent time in prison. Just as they did not voice the discrepancy between their ideas of motherhood and their experience of motherhood, the women did not seem to realize the contradiction in an attempt to restore trust coupled with a giant lie about their criminal background. As previously mentioned, this indicates the need for women to develop a new understanding of motherhood that incorporated their experiences in prison. If women could reconcile their incarceration with their image of motherhood, they would be more likely to be open with their children. I agree that truth is always the best option, but one cannot force these women to tell their children the truth because they fear rejection from their children. They must learn that they can be both an inmate and a good mother before one can reasonable expect them to share the truth with their children.

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