The first few years of a child’s life are the foundation years for establishing a direction that will last a lifetime.
In an endeavour to ensure prison babies do not pay for the crimes of their mother, the Department of Correctional Services has special mother and baby units at three prisons in the country that focus on the best interests of the child.
As to whether a child benefits from staying with his or mother in prison until two years old and thereafter placed in foster care or the care of a relative, is much debated.
Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso Ndebele spoke at a Women’s Month convention in Port Elizabeth last week and said women represent the fastest growing category of offender population in South Africa.
“It is for this reason we are prioritising issues surrounding women in conflict with the law. One of our greatest concerns has been the issue of women who are pregnant at the time of their incarceration, and those mothers with babies younger than two years who do not have any family into whose care the child can be entrusted,” he said.
During a visit on Tuesday to the mother and baby unit in the female section at Westville Prison, the Daily News learnt that 80 percent of female prisoners in KwaZulu-Natal have been sentenced for killing either their child or partner, and many of these women come into prison pregnant.
Correctional Services social manager Zilungile Dlamini said the reasons for the murders were unclear. She said many of the mothers were repeat offenders who committed petty crimes such as shoplifting for baby supplies in order to come back into the unit.
Ndebele said the heads of these prisons have been directed to approach the sentencing magistrates with motivation to convert petty crime sentences into correctional supervision outside the prisons.
He said the mother and baby units were for women serving long sentences for serious crimes.
These units were officially opened during Women’s Month last year.
There are three units in the country – one at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town (14 babies), one at the East London Prison which is currently being renovated (nine babies) and one at Westville Prison (three babies).
Having a baby stay with their mother in prison was the absolute last resort said Dlamini. It is only if all efforts to keep the baby with relatives have failed, she said
“The community see this beautiful facility and think we are spoiling the prisoners, because outside, many creches don’t have this. Babies staying in prison doesn’t benefit them.”
The initial policy was to allow for a child to stay until they are five years old. It was reduced when the unit observed the effects being in prison had on a child, such as their speech development being far behind that of a normal child.
She spoke of a prisoner who had three children in prison who kept the one child with her until he was three years old because there was no one to take care of him. The prisoner and her parents were convicted for the same murder. Her children, now older, still suffer the effects of living in prison.
Dlamini said one child must sit near a window so that he can see the car he came in when he visits. Another child, now 11, can still hear the locking of doors.
“The separation is painful but we have to do it. We also don’t encourage the child to be familiar with our uniform. We don’t carry or play with the child. If we know the child has to be placed in foster care after the two-year period we start work on this from the outset. The foster parent brings the child each month for visits,” said Dlamini.
Chief operations officer at the facility, Nontsikelelo Jolingana, said they were learning from international best practice as well as from the experience of children living in cells with their mothers.
The success of the unit, she said, is the positive result of a child being able to bond with his or her mother.
The child does not live in a cell and is able to explore outside and learn. “The mother is also willing to participate in programmes to improve herself.
The challenge though is when the women have to part with their children.”
“This unit is not a home. We try to expose them to as normal an environment as possible, but it can never be the same as a home,” she said.
Derrick Mduli of Justice for Prisoners and Detainees Trust, said the biggest problem is the environment.
“From day one they are building a little criminal to become a big criminal. It’s important to speak to judges and magistrates and make arrangements to keep the mother out of a prison sentence and perhaps at an adult centre or correctional supervision, depending on the type of crime,” he said.
Dr Bev Killian, a child psychologist and lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus, said the principle of keeping the baby with their mother in prison was good.
She felt it was beneficial to both mother and child to have that bond, which created a good foundation for the child, allowing the child to perform well at school, make less visits to the doctor and be able to interact socially.
The difficulty, she said, is severing this attachment when the child is still at a critical phase – the child is either placed in foster care or in the care of a relative until the mother completes her sentence before the child turns two.
As a middle ground, Killian recommended the child leave the unit at three. “There should be consistency of care. At two years old, whatever good has been done would be undone if the child is separated from his or her mother.”
The attachment formed is reciprocal.
Killian, like Mduli also suggested perhaps a community-based sentence, depending on the crime, instead of the mother being placed in prison.