In SA, quite a number of babies are born behind prison walls, necessitating the confinement of both mother and child in the nearest thing to a "baby-friendly" environment. File picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA Pictures

August has flown by. During Women’s Month we focused on domestic violence and rape, but also on women achievers who become role models by breaking glass ceilings to liberate themselves from the suffocating confines of a male-dominated world.
Just more than 4000 women are imprisoned in our country - some with their babies.

In 243 “correctional centres”, we have a prison population of more than 161 000 - the highest in Africa and number 11 in the world. More than 16 000 of these are serving life sentences. A few decades ago, several of them would have been hanged.

Our prisons are grossly overcrowded. In a cell built for 20, I once saw more than 90 men sharing a shower, wash basin and toilet and hanging their laundry on lines across the room.

This is especially the case in cells with awaiting-trial inmates who have not yet been convicted and who may have their proper “day in court” after months or even years.

Several of them are eventually acquitted because of weak or lost evidence, or - believe it or not - because they are indeed innocent of the offence with which they are charged. By then many are, however, fully-fledged gang members with crime as their only future.

Prison gangs, violence, homosexual acts and the smuggling of drugs, cellphones and food are integral to the prison life of men. The insignia of gangs and images of violence and sex are grotesquely tattooed over their mostly lean, muscular bodies.

Knives and other weapons are made out of the metal pipes of stacked steel beds. On special occasions, tradition demands “blood on the floor” - the death or serious injury of an official.

The gang command structure can guarantee life or death. A “wife”, or “wyfie”, can wash your clothes and provide other comforts. What’s in it for the wyfie is personal safety and a bit of extra smuggled food.

Female prisons are also overcrowded. A cell for 25 with 37 inmates was not overcrowded, I was told. Another one was - mattresses were added on the floor, almost doubling the number.

The cells get fuller from September, a sympathetic warden tells me. The reason may be that women then steal more to have clothes and other presents for their children by Christmas.

Women behind bars include a few well-known inmates. Dina Rodrigues is serving a life sentence for arranging the murder of her boyfriend’s baby when she was 26 years old. In an unsuccessful appeal, she stated that she had lived an overprotected life and was new to matters of love and life at the time. She may get parole at the age of 51. In the meantime, she has obtained a BCom degree, received a prize as the best computer science student and is teaching others.

Nadjwa Petersen is serving 28 years for the murder of her husband, music legend Taliep Petersen. Marietjie Prinsloo is serving 25 years for a massive pyramid scheme she and her family ran from their house, which collapsed and left pensioners and others penniless. Her daughter works in the prison library while serving her 15 years and quietly says: “Prison is not a joke; I do not even know where to start explaining.”

Only 2.6% of our prison population are women - one of the lowest percentages in the world. Not bad for a society of which just more than half is female. Many women are imprisoned for theft and crime, rather than violent crime. In the Northern Cape, for example, drugs and alcohol fuel murder and assault. Few offenders are gang members, though. Violence in prison caused by lesbian relationships occurs, but seems to be grounded in a genuine need for closeness rather than domination and authority.

Are women less criminally inclined than men? Or simply less active? Are they less violent but more cunning than men? Or are sentencing courts more lenient with women than with men because they are seen as mothers and caretakers of children?

It is said that women often become pregnant while they are on trial in order to get lighter sentences, but we do not have statistical proof of this. Female inmates are tested for pregnancy on admission, but early babies do arrive. An inmate would approach the nurse in the clinic with a stomach ache for an examination to reveal that twins are not only on the way, but close to their time of arrival.

Thus quite a number of babies are born behind prison walls.

In a smallish national heritage site building next to the Ocean Basket and across the street from a company that promises to manage your finances and risks “across the board” is Oudtshoorn’s female prison - one of a few in the country where babies are kept with their mothers. Insofar as seeing incarcerated women and children can ever be an almost uplifting experience, this is one. For one, the place just smells better than other prisons.

Inmates in neat blue overalls look relaxed, some even cheerful. A 21-year-old without front teeth is keen to pose for pictures. She wants to be in the newspaper. People will see her and then use the paper to roll and smoke a “zol”, she says. Having served time for robbery, she was released on parole but broke her parole to get back behind bars “because there are only drugs and nothing else out there”.

A separate little house can accommodate five mothers with babies. The place looks like an upmarket day-care centre: brightly coloured walls with pictures, jolly curtains, toys. A social worker assists full-day. Medical care is given. Food is provided.

Cynics - and others - may ask: Are these kids not better off behind bars than fatherless with a drunk mother in the poverty and squalor of the nearby informal settlements?

Or do they need the closeness of even drunk family members and the company of snot-nosed little playmates in rags? What is the value of freedom, weighed against food and medicine?

And what does it say about our society anyway?

* Johann van der Westhuizen is a former Justice of the Constitutional Court, and current Inspecting Judge of Correctional Services

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Star