International Women’s Day on Saturday celebrates women’s accomplishments and struggles worldwide. The plight of one of the most vulnerable groups of women, female prison inmates, however, is often forgotten.
The number of women in South African prisons is very small in proportion to the overall prison population.
According to the 2012/2013 Department of Correctional Services (DCS) annual report, there are 242 correctional centres that accommodate 150 608 inmates. Out of that, only 3 380 are females.
Despite their small numbers, female prisoners have specific needs, mainly in the field of health care: pregnancy, child birth and childcare. South Africa, however, does not have a policy framework in this field. The constitution deals with the rights of prisoners in general, but there are no laws or regulations tailored to the needs of female inmates.
In 2010, South Africa signed the “UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules)” which are international guidelines for the treatment of women in prisons. One of the provisions stipulates: “Preventive health-care measures of particular relevance to women, such as Pap smears and screening for breast and gynaecological cancers, will be offered to women prisoners on an equal basis with women of the same age in the community”.
Four women incarcerated in Johannesburg Prison, also known as Sun City, do not feel they have benefited from this international legal obligation.
Betty van Tonder*, 42, is serving a 12-year sentence for defrauding her former boss out of R1.4 million. She shares a cell with 38 other women, using one shower and a single toilet. She suffers from diabetes, but is unable to test her sugar level because she has been told the sugar testing machine at the prison hospital doesn’t work.
Lisa Vetten, researcher and analyst at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research said in her report on “The imprisonment of women in Africa”, that women are invisible and neglected when prison rules and policies are formulated. Prison facilities are designed with men’s needs in mind and as a result, are inadequate for the needs of pregnant women and children.
“The inmates don’t see a doctor unless they are “seriously” sick. A nurse is sent once a week and is seen between 8am and 2pm, if you’re lucky. The nurse carries a notebook and on Mondays, inmates line up to tell her their woes, the nurse writes their names, prison numbers and the medical problem”, says Betty.
”The nurse then decides on the plan of action, if in her eyes the inmate is not gravely ill, they are issued with a Panado pill. If there is a possibility you might truly be unwell, an appointment is set up for you to see the doctor on Thursday and even then, you need to pray he/she shows up.”
“I remember my first month in prison, a lady fell sick and she complained of chest pains, every time she went to see the nurse, she was given a Panado,” says Pearl Mabena*. Pearl, 31, is a former inmate at Sun City, where she spent 6 months awaiting trial before serving two years after a retail card scam went wrong.
“One evening the lady clutched at her chest and she collapsed. We banged on the door, screamed, tried everything and no one came, she fell, still holding her chest and she did not move the whole night, none of us could sleep. When the warders came the following morning to let us out of our cells, they took one look at her and said she was dead. We spent a night with a dead body, she could have been saved.”
According to the DCS, the department provides primary health-care services which are nurse-driven. In cases where a woman requires the services of a gynaecologist, she will be referred to a public hospital.
But Viwe Tafadzwa* says this usually does not happen: “We are given a limited number of pads, the warders want to see whether you’re really bleeding and don’t care how heavy your flow is.” Viwe, 26, is serving a three-year sentence for defrauding Absa out of R45 000.
Menstruation is a fact of life for all women and is usually a private matter which most manage alone. This is different for inmates, leaving them depend on others to supply basic sanitary products.
“My family used to visit me regularly, therefore I had enough cosmetics and this gave me the upper hand. Those who had no visits or came from poor families would wash, iron or share their food for a certain period, so they could get the basics,” says Thato Khumalo*, 24. Khumalo served a two-year term for possession of an illegal firearm and ammunition.
According to Vetten’s research, the issues are similar across the continent: In Malawi and Mozambique, women also don’t have easy access to pads. In Zimbabwe, inmates used alternatives such as newspapers, tissues and pieces of blanket or prison uniform. In Ethiopia, they were provided cloths they were expected to wash and reuse. In Nigeria, one pad had to be shared between two women every month and Ugandan women did not have panties to wear during their periods.
Pregnancy and childcare is another issue that is germane to women. A number of women in prison were primary caregivers before incarceration, some pregnant or had small children when they were sentenced. Babies up to the age of two years are allowed to stay with their mothers. DCS says there are 3 749 women in correctional centres and only 84 of them have babies with them.
Former inmate, Moipone Nkwana, who spoke to the Wits Justice Project, gave birth to her fifth child in prison. She was shackled to the bed and experienced first-hand the difficult conditions of pregnant women and mothers. She served four years for fraud.
According to a report by Penal Reform International (PRI): “Protecting Children in Prison”, growing up in a prison can be traumatic, but it is often seen as the only option. Separation from a parent is also traumatic, which is why authorities try to make basic provisions.
According to DCS spokesman Manelisi Wolela: “information relating to parenting is given by health-care providers and after pregnancy”.
The PRI report notes there is a lack in provisions for children born in prison: “Often the lack of dedicated resources puts children’s well-being at risk. Not enough is done to promote alternatives to custody for mothers with young children, for example: education and rehabilitation programmes or early conditional release.”
DCS, however, claimed that “The department doesn’t have a mandate to promote alternative custody, only the courts can do that, then the department will implement”.
Palesa Manaleng is a journalist for the Wits Justice Project.
* Names of the inmates were changed for their safety.