A child plays and reads a book at one of the Mother and Child unit in Sun City Prison. Pictures: Nokuthula Mbatha/ANA Pictures

Tebogo Monama pays a visit to the Mother and Child unit in the heart of Johannesburg Prison.

A year-old baby girl laughs and points at pictures in the book her mother is reading to her. The mother cuddles her child on a tiny bed.

This is a normal bonding session between mother and daughter, but the difference is that this one takes place in a prison cell at the Mother and Child unit of the Johannesburg Prison.

Here, there is a separate unit for mothers and children. There are currently 21 children at the correctional centre, where they will stay until they turn two.

One of the mothers at the prison is Tertia, whose son, Sean, is 17-months-old. He is her second son. Tertia’s first son is 12-years-old and lives with his grandmother.

Tertia said giving birth at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital as an offender was a lonely experience.

“The experience at Bara was very painful. It was also very sad that you were cuffed to the bed, not during the birth but before and straight after. It was quite a sad experience, I was crying quite a lot.”

Tertia gave birth three months into her four-year sentence. “After the birth it was so painful. I also didn’t have contact visits with my family.

“For four months they had to see the baby through the window. They couldn’t hold him,” she said.

Inmates are only allowed contact visits six months after their sentencing.

Tertia said that once her family was able to hold the baby, it was a bitter-sweet moment. “It was awesome and pretty emotional. My older son has been waiting a long time for a baby sister or brother. It was so emotional when he finally held the baby,” she said.

To keep the children busy and stimulated, they attend a crèche at the facility. Women and children stay in a separate unit from other convicts.

Their rooms consist of a bunk bed for the mother and next to each one, a tiny cot for the baby. From six months, the children are sent to the crèche.

Some of the women housed in the facility have yet to experience the joy and loneliness of having a baby in prison. Expectant mother Phumi is looking forward to giving birth in the next two months. She was convicted when she was four months pregnant and is serving an eight-year sentence.

A child grabs her mother’s leg at the prison crèche, where children are accepted from six months to two years.

Just like any other expectant mother, she is looking forward to meeting her child. “Being pregnant is exciting but not here. It’s exciting especially knowing it’s my third one. My other children are excited and they say they want a baby sister and not another brother,” she laughs.

Phumi said that unlike her previous pregnancies, she had been more open to learning about being a parent and was taking courses to help her.

“The one I am taking now is called Parental Guidance. It has to do with looking after children and myself and maybe when I get out of here, I will work at a crèche.

“Outside I would never have thought to take a course on parental guidance. There are things you think you know but you don’t really. Now it is more about my baby being healthy than anything else.”

While Phumi prepares to welcome her new baby, Shantel longs for her two-year-old who moved out of the prison in January.

She said: “It was very difficult for me when she left. I had my whole support system here - my mother, father and sister - and I couldn’t watch them walk away. I had to turn my back and it felt like I was turning my back on my child, like I turned my back on my two other children. At that moment, you feel worthless.”

A prison mother walks her son at the Johannesburg Prison.

To keep her mind occupied on other things, Shantel has started taking classes in maths and travel and tourism. She says the experience of giving birth in prison was difficult because she didn’t have her family with her. “In prison you are alone.”

It was only after her daughter went home with her family that she realised that prison is not a place for a child. “The two years I spent with her, we bonded.

“When all you have is the time you spend with your baby, you never miss anything. They are with you for their first tooth and their first crawl. By the time the baby goes home, you’ve got all that connection and suddenly it’s gone. Letting go isn’t easy,” she said.

Social workers prepare the mothers at least four months before the children are moved out of the facility. Once they turn two, the children are released into the care of a family member chosen by the mother. The suitability of the people chosen is assessed by the social workers. If family members are unavailable or not suitable, children are placed in foster care.

Mothers return to the normal women’s facility two years after the child is released but continue to receive contact visits from the child.

Shantel’s daughter visits every second weekend. “My support system is good. Even when my daughter was still with me, my family made sure my two other children visited us. The first time she came was 10 days after she left and it was sad. She was clingy and crying. The next time she came she was used to the outside world. She adapted perfectly,” she said.

Missing her children’s big moments is what breaks her heart everyday. Shantel will only be released in nine years.

“The sad part is that I have three kids. I won’t be there for their first day at school. It’s difficult and you feel like you have failed as a mother. On the other side, you must deal with the reality that you have done something wrong. You can’t blame anyone else.”

Tertia is preparing herself emotionally for when Sean will leave the prison in the next seven months.

She still has another two years in prison. “I am trying my best. He is going to stay with my mom but emotionally there is no way to prepare. It’s going to be so difficult to part from him.”

For now, she dreams about all the things she wants to experience with him when she is released. “When I leave, I want to eat ice cream with him, that is something we don’t have here. I want to swim with him, the kids don’t know about swimming pools. I also want to see him play with a cat or a dog or any other pet,” mused Tertia.

A seven-month pregnant woman behind bars at the prison.

Hlengiwe Zibani, head of the female correctional facility at Johannesburg Prison, said the Department of Correctional Services felt that it was important to keep in mind that the babies were not offenders, their mothers were, and that’s why there was a separate unit.

“It is unfortunate that the mothers are here but we have to make things easier for the children.

“It’s not a nice feeling to have children within a centre. The institution is not good for children; it’s only suitable for offenders. We do our level best to ensure that the baby’s stay here is normal and they don’t feel incarcerated, because they didn’t offend anyone.”

A mom holds her daughter as they prepare to go for lunch.

The Star

* Only first names have been used to protect the children’s identity