Un­likely vic­tims of moth­ers’ sins

Ex­perts be­lieve the best place for a baby is out­side prison, writes CARIEN DU PLESSIS

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

PRISON cor­ri­dors are not usu­ally places as­so­ci­ated with the pit­ter-pat­ter of lit­tle feet, but right now 168 chil­dren younger than five are locked up with their moth­ers in 20 pris­ons across the coun­try.

Al­most all of th­ese hid­den lit­tle vic­tims of crime were born in prison, and will see the world for the first time when they emerge, ei­ther when their moth­ers are re­leased or when they are placed in care.

There are anec­dotes of chil­dren emerg­ing from prison for the first time in their lives be­ing scared of men (as they had never be­fore en­coun­tered a man in prison on a reg­u­lar ba­sis) or see­ing grass for the first time.

Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices Min­is­ter No­siviwe MapisaNqakula said last week in Par­lia­ment that prison was no place for ba­bies, but she was not the first min­is­ter to say this.

Her pre­de­ces­sor, Ng­conde Bal­four, said the same thing in an in­ter­view shortly af­ter he was ap­pointed in 2004, and in 2007 the Con­sti­tu­tional Court ruled that a fraud­ster mother of three chil­dren, aged be­tween six and 12, should serve a sus­pended sen­tence at home be­cause she was the only care­giver.

There seems to be agree­ment that the in­ter­est of the child is para­mount, but the devil is in the de­tail.

One of the sug­ges­tions the min­is­ter put on the ta­ble last week was that prison au­thor­i­ties send th­ese moth­ers – con­victed crim­i­nals who have to pay their dues to so­ci­ety – home to raise their chil­dren to a cer­tain age. Or should their ba­bies be taken from the im­pris­oned moth­ers at birth to be placed in care, as hap­pens in some Amer­i­can pris­ons?

And if th­ese moth­ers are al­lowed to keep their chil­dren with them for bond­ing pur­poses, or if no al­ter­na­tive care can be found for the chil­dren, up to what age should chil­dren be al­lowed to stay in pris­ons?

What about pro­vid­ing spe­cial, home-like ac­com­mo­da­tion for moth­ers and chil­dren in pris­ons? Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices Deputy Min­is­ter Hlengiwe Mkhize launched the “Im­beleko” ini­tia­tive in East Lon­don on Wed­nes­day, where a spe­cial mother and child unit, a lit­tle bit away from the prison, was es­tab­lished, but ques­tions re­main whether even th­ese units are ideal, and also whether the units do not be­stow spe­cial priv­i­leges on th­ese women, en­cour­ag­ing them to raise their chil­dren in prison.

Cur­rently prison reg­u­la­tions al­low for chil­dren to stay with their moth­ers in prison un­til they are five years old, but this will change to two years old in Novem­ber when the Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices Amend­ment Act of 2008 is ex­pected to kick in.

Some, like pris­ons NGO Ni­cro, say it would be bet­ter still for ba­bies to be re­moved from pris­ons when they are only six months old, as the trauma and dis­ad­van­tages they suf­fer from grow­ing up in a con­fined en­vi­ron­ment like a prison trump the trauma of be­ing sep­a­rated from their moth­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to a study com­mis­sioned by Ni­cro in 2006, but due to be pub­lished only now af­ter be­ing kept un­der wraps by the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices, “the best place for ba­bies is out­side the prison walls”.

In South Africa be­fore 1994, women with ba­bies in prison stayed with all the other women pris­on­ers, but this changed in 1996 when spe­cial baby units were es­tab­lished to look af­ter the needs of moth­ers and chil­dren in pris­ons.

Creches have to be es­tab­lished in th­ese units as well, where pro­fes­sional child­care work­ers and so­cial work­ers can help the moth­ers and chil­dren, but this doesn’t hap­pen in all the pris­ons.

Ac­cord­ing to the depart­ment’s pol­icy, Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices is obliged to pro­vide the chil­dren with food, nap­pies, clothes and health­care, but chil­dren can only stay with their moth­ers in prison if no other care is avail­able for them out­side, for in­stance, with rel­a­tives.

The pol­icy also stip­u­lates that the mother and baby units should ex­pose chil­dren to nor­mal types of stim­u­la­tion such as male fig­ures, pets, food prepa­ra­tion, out­side play­grounds and group ac­tiv­i­ties, traf­fic and shop­ping cen­tre ac­tiv­i­ties.

In its study of four pris­ons, Ni­cro found, how­ever, that while some pris­ons pro­vided good care for moth­ers and chil­dren, in oth­ers some poli­cies were ig­nored.

The over­crowded Jo­han­nes­burg Prison, for in­stance, which houses 77 small chil­dren, has no com­mu­nal area, only a court­yard with a jun­gle gym and a swing.

At the time of Ni­cro’s visit there were not enough cots for all the chil­dren, and some had to share beds with their moth­ers. The prison was also very cold. The Pre­to­ria Women’s Prison, which cur­rently houses seven chil­dren, had no creche. There were very few toys, and chil­dren were sel­dom taken out­side.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­searchers, the women were al­lowed to take their chil­dren to a court­yard with a swing, but it was sur­rounded by high walls and was mostly in the shade.

The re­searchers – one of whom is an ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­o­gist – found that moth­ers and chil­dren some­times form se­cure bonds in prison, but mostly the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two is am­biva­lent or anx­ious.

Most ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­o­gists agree that the first two years are the most crit­i­cal in a child’s de­vel­op­ment, and that the foun­da­tion for var­i­ous be­hav­iour pat­terns is laid at this stage. This means that, if a child is scarred at this point, he or she will be scarred for life.

Ni­cro con­cluded in the study that al­though the sleep­ing quar­ters at the four pris­ons they vis­ited – Jo­han­nes­burg, Pre­to­ria, Pollsmoor and Dur­ban-Westville – were ba­sic but ad­e­quate, shar­ing sin­gle cells, as hap­pens in Jo­han­nes­burg, is not good and could be stress­ful.

In Pre­to­ria, where cells were not dec­o­rated by women them­selves as hap­pens in some other pris­ons, re­searchers said the women and chil­dren’s phys­i­cal and emo­tional func­tion­ing re­flected the bleak sur­round­ings they stayed in.

The DA’s cor­rec­tional ser­vices shadow min­is­ter, James Selfe, says he would not sup­port the release of moth­ers with young chil­dren, be­cause women might be tempted to fall preg­nant to avoid go­ing to jail. He ad­vo­cates smaller, child-friendly units within prison precincts where moth­ers can raise their chil­dren.

Selfe be­lieves six months is, per­haps, too young to sep­a­rate a baby from its mother.

Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices over­sight com­mit­tee chair­man Vin­cent Smith says it is def­i­nitely an is­sue that should be opened for pub­lic de­bate. “The sta­tus quo, for me, is not on,” he said.

He says many of the moth­ers MPs spoke to dur­ing the com­mit­tee’s over­sight vis­its to pris­ons said they knew pris­ons were not a good place to raise chil­dren. But they were con­cerned about what would hap­pen to their chil­dren if they were placed in care out­side prison walls.

Many of them said they did not want to be sep­a­rated from their chil­dren.

Smith says the sys­tem is also open to abuse. Warders at Jo­han­nes­burg prison told MPs that at least half of the women there are il­le­gal for­eign na­tion­als, who ap­par­ently com­mit crimes such as shoplift­ing shortly be­fore they are due to give birth so that they can have proper care.

Mkhize this week promised that the depart­ment would work on the is­sue of ba­bies in pris­ons, and repli­cate the child-friendly unit in East Lon­don in other pris­ons.

The depart­ment had al­ready started with an au­dit of its fa­cil­i­ties for women, she said.

She also urged com­mu­ni­ties to get in­volved.

“Let’s go back to our tra­di­tional cul­tural val­ues where we did not have or­phans, by in­tro­duc­ing a sup­port sys­tem where we could all in­tro­duce an adopt-a-child pro­gramme by adopt­ing a child at risk, through do­na­tions or vol­un­teer­ing as care work­ers in our chil­dren’s home or vil­lages,” she said.

The de­bate about th­ese ba­bies be­hind bars is likely to rage on for quite some time, but in the end, the child as well as so­ci­ety should ben­e­fit from the

PIC­TURE: IAN LANDSBERG

BLEAK FU­TURE: The DA’s cor­rec­tional ser­vices shadow min­is­ter, James Selfe, says he would not sup­port the release of moth­ers with young chil­dren.

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