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

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Incarcerated Mothers in South Africa

In South Africa, the female inmate population is very small compared with international standards. In 2007, women made up only 2.1% of the inmate population and the numbers have not increased dramatically since then (Luyt 2008:304). Despite the lower percentage of women, the proportion of mothers remains high. Estimates range from about 70% (Luyt 2008: 311) to almost 85% of women in prison have children (Sloth-Nielsen 2005). Whichever statistics you look at, the fact remains that most of the women in South African prisons are mothers. These women face the same difficulties as incarcerated mother throughout the world, but their issues are exacerbated by a system that is still riddled with problems.

One of the largest complaints from incarcerated mothers is lack of contact with their children. When women enter prison they have to make the difficult decision of where to leave their children. The majority of women put their children in the care of family members or friends rather than entrusting them to the care of the state or their fathers (Sloth-Nielsen 2005). Giving up one's child, even for a short period, can be a stressful experience. Mother come to prison with a fear that their children might forget about them while they are away, and the only thing that can alleviate that fear is communication with their child. Unfortunately, communication while in prison is particularly difficult. In one South African study, 95% of participants indicated that they had lost contact with their children after imprisonment. The same percentage said they did not receive visits from their children for a variety of reasons including the high cost of transportation and hostility of DCS members (Luyt 2008: 319). Another study found that one-third of female inmates had not seen their children since the beginning of their incarceration and one-tenth saw their children only once a year (Haffejee, Vetten, and Greyling 2006: 3). Even for women who maintain contact with their children, prison visits fail to provide the necessary environment or time for mother-child bonding. Visitations are limited to only 40 minutes to an hour and are often shorter to allow for more visitors (Luyt 2008:318). Visits often occur in a public space, which limits the nature of discussions. The prisons also lack facilities for mothers and children to play together during visits, even in instances when children are allowed physical contact with their mothers (Haffejee, Vetten and Greyling 2006: 3). Given the difficulties of visitations and contact with children, it is hardly surprising that incarcerated mothers report having a “forced relationship” with their children rather than a natural one (Luyt 2008: 320).

Perhaps even more discouraging is the experience women face when they leave prison and are unable to regain contact with their children. In the South African system, even temporary imprisonment of the mother can lead to permanent separation of mother and child. Many mothers find that if their children have entered the realm of state care it is nearly impossible to regain custody (Luyt 2008: 316). This reality imposes a great deal of strain on imprisoned mothers and forces them to make difficult decisions regarding the care of their children, forcing them to sometimes temporarily abandon their families rather than entrust them to the care of the state.

Mother-Child Prison Units

Nothing can be more horrifying for a woman than entering prison while pregnant. The fear of giving birth in shackles and having your newborn baby torn from your arms and deposited in a state institution far away from you must be crippling. Similarly, the first year of life is an important stage for children. It is of paramount importance that a child bonds with an adult figure during that first year because that attachment forms the building blocks for the child's capacity to love, trust, feel secure, and develop self-esteem (Eloffand Moen 2003: 712). Fortunately, the majority of countries allow incarcerated women to keep their babies with them in prison up to a certain age, particularly if the women are pregnant at the time of their incarceration (United Nations 2008: 21). According to the Correctional Services Amendment Act of 2008, incarcerated mothers in South Africa may keep their children in prison with them until the child reaches two years of age. The Act also maintains that a special unit should exist where these mothers and children can live. On August 18, 2011, the DCS opened the first model Mother and Child Unit attached to the Pollsmoor prison. The new unit addresses the issues of deprivation for children imprisoned with their mothers and attempts to mitigate the negative effects of prison life. It contains a medical facility, a kitchen so mothers can prepare baby-friendly meals, a nursery, and an outdoor play area. This unit is the first of its kind in South Africa and the Correctional Services Minister plans to establish three more facilities in the coming years (Department of Correctional Services 2011).

Within each country and the international community, professionals as well as average citizens debate the existence of these units. Some argue that mother and child units benefit the psychological health of both mother and child, like Allison Ford who wrote an analysis of mother-child units within US prisons. She found that women involved in the programs had much lower recidivism rates than the general inmate population. She also argues that these units are beneficial for healthy child development as well because children separated from their mothers due to maternal incarceration are more likely to be arrested, drop out of school, and develop emotional disorders (Ford 2010). A study conducted in South Africa on the Pretoria Female Prison mirrors these results. Inmates allowed to keep their children with them in prison had a much lower recidivism rate, only 8-9% compared with the 18% of women who return to prison from outside the mother-child units (Eloff and Moen 2003: 712). These results indicate that, in theory at least, mother and child units within prison are a valid and helpful solution to the issue of inmates with infants.

As with the disjuncture between policy and practice, theoretical conclusions often fall short when applied to real situations, including the issue of mother and child units. While they seem beneficial in theory, the reality of mother and child units undermines the positive effects of the mother-child bond. Prisons are not child-friendly places. Eloff and Moen conducted a study of the Mother and Child Unit in Pretoria Female Prison in 2003. They found that children lack the necessary stimulus to foster positive mental growth, they have to share a small bed with their mothers, and they are subject to lock-down at 14:30 just like the adult inmates (714-717). Although the White Paper on Corrections indicates that all mother and child units should have a crèche for childhood development, The South African Human Rights Commission visited mother-child units across the country in 1998 and found that the vast majority lacked any special facilities for children. The children had to “sit idle with their mothers the whole day” (34). Additionally, the prison environment limits the types of interaction between a mother and her child, therefore making it difficult for the pair to bond even when living together. Due to the large number of people in the area, children form no specific attachment with their mother (Eloff and Moen 2003: 717). While the theoretical implications of mother and child units indicate positive childhood development and the creation of healthy bonds, the reality within South African prisons fails to meet that standard.

Although governments and NGOs are beginning to implement policies that address the specific issues of incarcerated women and mothers, these policies fall short, both internationally and within South Africa. Despite these policies, incarcerated mothers complain of lack of contact with their children, which harms the psychological development of both mother and innocent child and the steps taken to prevent mother-child separation, namely mother and child units within prisons, ultimately might undermine their goal. Given the lack of widespread, practical and beneficial solutions to the concerns of incarcerated mothers, the conversation must continue in the coming years.

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