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

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Incarcerated women face difficulties within the prison system that male prisoners never experience. In the international experience, women constitute a minority of incarcerated persons and prison institutions treat them as such. In male dominated establishments, women's particular needs are often side-lined, meaning that women have less access to facilities, rehabilitation programs, and medical attention that specifically deals with the issues of females (Townhead 2006: 5). Prison systems inadequately address issues of motherhood. Across the globe, the majority of women in prison are mothers. In South Africa in particular, an estimated 70% of the female inmates have children (Luyt 2008: 311). While the Department of Correctional Services has established various programs and policies to assist these women, the actual steps they have taken to implement these fall short in terms of helping women maintain healthy relationships with their children.

Researchers have conducted many studies that examine the impact of imprisonment on mother-child relationships; in fact, the children of imprisoned parents are a particular favorite for studies. However, despite the previous research, few studies have looked at the issue from the incarcerated mother’s point of view. How do the women deal with separation? How do they cope with the loss of their status as a mother? One cannot begin to address the issue of mother-child relationships without properly examining both sides. This study attempts to fill in some of the holes by focusing on issues particular to incarcerated mothers in Eshowe Correctional Facility

The goal of this study was to examine the lives of mothers within Eshowe Correctional Facility, specifically how they construct notions of motherhood in prison given the mental and physical difficulties imposed on them. Within this broad goal, there were a few specific objectives.

  • Analyze how incarcerated mothers construct notions of motherhood and to what extent the prison environment informs that understanding.

  • Examine the presence of mother and child units within prison. How do they operate? What do inmates think about them? What do prison officials think about them?

  • Shed light on the particular difficulties of mothers in prison and offer suggestions for programs to address those issues.

Although far from comprehensive, this paper will bring to light some of the issues mothers face while incarcerated. It will tell the story of seven women housed in Eshowe Correctional Facility and analyze their conceptions of motherhood. Particularly, it looks at whether these women have been able to reconcile their identity as mothers with their current incarceration, or whether they have maintained the same understanding of motherhood as before they entered the prison. The study also looked at the issues surrounding Mother and Child Units within the South African Correctional Services system. It does so through the thoughts and opinions of one mother currently houses in Eshowe Correctional Facility with her infant daughter and through the thoughts of other incarcerated mothers and social workers.

This paper begins with a premise that it is important for both incarcerated mothers and their children to develop and maintain healthy relationships while in prison. I argue that programs that promote visitation and communication between mothers and their children only address part of the issue. Before programs bring the children of inmates to visit their mothers, incarcerated women need to reshape their understanding of motherhood in order to discover that they can still play an instrumental role in their children’s lives even if they are in prison. Similarly, the issues with mother and child units within prison extend far beyond the physical problems and into the ability of women to mother effectively while in a prison environment.

The paper consists of six sections. The first is a literature review, which details the previous research and writing done in the area of mothers in prison, both internationally and within South Africa particularly. The second section lays out the methodology of this study, specifically the use of participant observation in a restorative justice program and personal interviews. The next section highlights some of the limitations within the study. The fifth section contains the results of the study. In this section, I argue that although the inmates in Eshowe Correctional Facility face difficulties unique to their status as inmates, they have not developed a new understanding of motherhood that conforms to their new situation as incarcerated mother. The fifth section of the paper is broken up into two subsections, one that details the issues of mothers separated from their children and one that looks at the mother and child unit in Eshowe Correctional Facility. Finally, the sixth section is a conclusion where I reiterate my major findings and provide some suggestions for both the prison system and rehabilitation programs to address the issues of incarcerated mothers.

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