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

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Maternal Imprisonment Internationally

Motherhood is a transformative experience. Through giving birth and raising a child, a woman quite literally changes her identity from an independent individual to being responsible for the life of another. Motherhood also cannot be taken away; unlike jobs, romantic relationships, possessions, and almost everything else in life, the identity of a woman as a mother is something permanent. That does not change when women enter prison. Although the prison system removes them from their children, the identity and feelings of a mother remain. “Most women in prison are mothers” (Townhead 2006, 5) and many of the debates regarding female inmates center on their role as mothers. The United Nations and the Quaker United Nations have published numerous articles and letters about the plight of mothers in prison, which differ greatly from the issues surrounding paternal incarceration. When fathers are arrested and sent to prison, usually a mother or mother-figure already exists to care for the children left behind and the family therefore remains relatively intact. However, when women enter prison, the family often breaks up because no father figure steps forward to single-handedly take on the parenting role (United Nations 2008:17). Since women constitute a minority of inmates internationally, there are fewer female prisons within any given country. This means that while men generally live in prisons close to their home, women from the same home might be forced to enter a prison further away because it is the only one in the area with a female unit. Distance therefore presents a severe barrier to family contact for incarcerated mothers, as families often cannot pay for the expenses associated with travel to and from the prison (United Nations 2008: 15).

Studies have found that for female inmates particularly, less contact with their children decreases their emotional and physical health and severely increases stress associated with parenting. This in turn causes increased anxiety, depression, and instances of misbehavior among the prisoners (Hoffmann, Byrd, and Kightlinger 2009: 399). The United Nations has recognized the unique relationship between mothers and children. The Handbook for Prison Managers and Policymakers on Women and Imprisonment, published by the UN in 2008, addresses such issues. “Children are a life-sustaining force for many prisoners and breaking the bond between the mother and child is punishment of the worst kind for the mother” (20). Given the severe consequences of maternal imprisonment on the health of the mother, Townhead argues that female inmates should have a right to family visits (2006: 12). This goes against the international norm, which presupposes that visitation is a privilege that prisoners must earn, rather than a right that they are entitled to and can demand regardless of their status within the institution. However, in terms of incarcerated mothers, it is a strategy that should be seriously considered, if not for the health of the mothers themselves, then for the benefit of their innocent children.

Multiple studies have looked at the impact of the prison environment on motherhood within the United States prison system. Of particular note is one study conducted by Judith Clark, a researcher and long-term prisoner within one of California's maximum-security prisons. She analyzed the way the prison environment influenced incarcerated mothers' relationship with their children as well as their sense of identity as mothers. In her own experience, she noted, “the sense of myself as a mother was key to my sanity” (Clark 1995). Clark found that women participated on a mothering subculture within the prison. Mothers could bond over discussion of their children. They could share fears together and receive support from the greater inmate community. Moreover, it allowed women to see themselves as something other than a prisoner; they were still human beings with an important role in society. While the identity of a mother provides incarcerated women with a positive self-image other than that of “prisoner,” the environment of a female prison undermines the qualities that make a successful mother. Autonomy and a sense of responsibility are necessary traits of strong and positive mother. However, these qualities are contrary to the image of an ideal female prisoner. The prison system expects women to be submissive and diminutive. Independence and assertiveness are particularly unacceptable qualities for female prisoners because the system sees them as “wayward children” rather than independent adults (Clark 1995). This status influences a woman's perception of herself. If the “adults” (the prison officials) around her treat her as a naughty child, she will ultimately internalize that role. Clark noted that within the prison women would act like young children, throwing tantrums, whining, and falling into fits of giggles. Conversely, when their children would come to visit, these same women would adopt an adult facade to cover-up their return to immaturity and present themselves in an adult manner to their children. These women would keep their face stern and refuse to play with their children during family visits. Ultimately, the influence of the prison system on an incarcerated mother’s psyche leads to the deterioration of a healthy mother-child relationship.

From Clark's study, it is clear that for women to maintain their mothering role while in the prison, the prison itself must provide an environment where the women can perceive themselves as fully functioning adults. To this end, incarcerated women need access to work and educational programs. When asked what types of programs would most benefit their children, a group of American prisoners responded that they would benefit from programs that help the mother succeed when released and programs that strengthen mother-child relationships (Sharp 2008: 18).

Some countries do offer such programs, especially those designed to help incarcerated mothers form and maintain healthy bonds with their children. Within the United States there are programs which allow mothers to visit their children on weekends, summer camp programs for children of incarcerated mothers, special playrooms for child visits, educational programs which teach incarcerated mother important parenting skills, and many more (Clark 1995). These programs not only improve the prison experience for the incarcerated mother by offering her support and guidance, they also have been found to lower recidivism rates a great degree, from 19% in the general population to only 1% of women who completed the programs (Hoffman, Byrd, and Kightlinger 2009: 400). The existence of such programs offer hope to those with a desire to help incarcerated mothers, but in order for them to be truly effective, organizations and prison institutions must implement them in a wider range of prisons.

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