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

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The South African Prison System

Before I look at the literature surrounding incarcerated mothers specifically within South Africa, I will offer a slight overview of the South African prison system post-1994. South Africa maintains one of the largest prison systems in the world, holding prisoners in 240 prisons scattered around the country (Sloth-Nielsen 2007: 381). After the fall of the apartheid government, South Africa took large steps in an attempt to reconstruct the prison system. The government demilitarized the institution, stripping Department of Correctional Service members of their military rank and uniforms (Sloth-Nielsen 2007: 380). In quick succession, the South African government implemented the 1994 White Paper on Corrections, the 1998 Correctional Services Act, the 2005 White paper on Corrections, and the 2008 Correctional Services Amendment Act. Each of these bodies of legislation and policy built upon the others to incorporate constitutional principles and international guidelines into the DCS system. Most recently, the Correctional Services Amendment Act of 2008 went so far as to change the vocabulary of prison life. “Prisons” no longer exist, instead they have been replaced by the friendlier term “Correctional Centers” where “inmates” rather than “prisoners” are offered a variety of programs which will correct their offending behavior and rehabilitate them (Department of Correctional Services 2008). However, despite the new terminology and proclaimed emphasis on rehabilitation, W. F. M. Luyt argues that prison conditions have worsened since the birth of South Africa's democracy (2008: 300). He points to issues of overcrowding and lack of rehabilitation programs as the most devastating faults of the current prison system.

To the credit of the Department of Correctional Services, it has acknowledged the importance of creating sub-systems within the larger prison system, which deal specifically with the issues of women in prison. In 2009 the DCS stated, “Despite the seemingly low numbers of women who are in the DCS facilities, challenges faced by women are unique and require a special approach” (27). One of those unique approaches appears in the Correctional Services Amendment Act of 2005, which establishes an obligation on the part of the DCS to incarcerate female inmates as close to their homes as possible, “especially if they are mothers” (DCS 2005: 163). The DCS website includes women inmates as a target group requiring increased access to psychological treatment. On paper, the DCS runs programs that deal with life skills building and family and marriage enrichment, putting them up to standard with programs in the United States and Britain. However, policy and reality often look very different from one another. We will now turn to the research that looks at the reality of women within the South African prison system.

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