Unlikely victims of mothers’ sins
Experts believe the best place for a baby is outside prison, writes CARIEN DU PLESSIS
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
BLEAK FUTURE: The DA’s correctional services shadow minister, James Selfe, says he would not support the release of mothers with young children.