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Westville Prison has had a mother and baby unit since the prison was established in 1986, however, before its official launch last year, there was no colourful decor or special catering for children living with their mothers.
The unit at the prison was decorated by Durban University of Technology interior design students over two months as their subject assessment.
The students, with police spokesman, Colonel Vincent Mdunge, co-ordinated sponsorship from NGOs and businesses for paint, baby toys, clothes, food, the washing machines, stove, fridge, microwave, new bathroom sinks, a bathtub and shower cubicles.
Using pastel colours and recycled material, the students transformed a wing in the female prison into a child friendly mother and baby unit that is both cheerful and depressing.
To get to the unit, one has to sign a register, hand in the handbag and cellphone, walk through a metal detector, enter two security gates and walk up a flight of stairs.
The walls leading to the unit are lined with inspirational words such as hope, freedom and love.
The main gates to the unit are under constant lock and key and then you walk through a foyer area that is carpeted and furnished with colourful ottomans, baby toys and tables.
Correctional services social manager, Zilungile Dlamini, said the foyer was intended for visitors such as the baby’s fathers but this is not allowed as the unit is in the female section and is not a separate section to the prison.
Another gate separates the living area from the foyer. A large chalkboard lists the number of female prisoners and babies, the duty roster, number of babysitters on duty and chores for the day.
The mother and baby sleep in a room that has a cot, chest of drawers, book and toy racks all made of wood by the correctional services workshop. The units, 21 in total, are painted in either lilac, blue or green.
There is an after hours play area for the babies where mothers are allowed to watch television or move around at night to make their baby food or warm milk. At night the prisoners’ rooms are not locked to allow for free movement. It is only the main gate that is secured.
The unit also has an equipped créche which Dlamini said they are currently working with the Department of Social Development to register.
They are also turning a room next door to it into a changing station and sleeping area in line with créche regulations.
Dlamini said they were probably the first créche of the three units to be registered.
The running costs are low as they rely on donations and most of the baby items have been donated or bought through sponsorship. The female prisoners are catered for by the prison.
An early childhood development practitioner comes in for daily programmes with the babies while the mothers attend rehabilitation programmes or workshops. Female offenders work as baby sitters.
There are currently three female prisoners at the unit with their babies. Two are already serving sentences for murder and the third is an awaiting trial prisoner charged with murder.
Nineteen-year-old Thandeka Phewa gave birth to her little girl in prison six months ago.
She was 18 years old and five months pregnant when she was sentenced to seven years for murdering her first child.
She said she was happy at the unit but said it was difficult there because it was not home.
She attends a social worker course once a week and spoke of her daily routine, which starts at 4am, with her baby.
Her mother, who lives in Chatsworth, has agreed to look after her baby when it is time for her little one to leave. Once the babies leave, the prisoners return to the normal cells and receive one visit a month from their child to continue building their relationship.
Ntombizonke Manqele, head of the unit, said the prisoners were terrified about returning to normal cells because the unit has free movement, 24 hour TV and comfortable living conditions.
“This all changes when they return to the female cells,” she said.
The women know from the outset that they have to return and before their child turns two they are counselled and prepared for the separation.
Three wardens work at this unit and Dlamini explained that the success of the unit is based on correct staffing.