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Life slightly better for prison babies

Published Aug 22, 2015


Johannesburg - Until a few years ago, babies born at the Johannesburg Prison lived just like their jailbird mothers, behind bars, never seeing a blade of grass, earth, trees or any part of the natural world.

Instead the little ones played on the cold cement floors in the long, dark corridors of the prison.

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They also shared a bed with their mothers in a tiny 2m x 3m cell.

Today, however, things are very different for babies behind bars at the prison.

The introduction of a moms and tots unit in 2012 has rejuvenated the female prison wing and brought to life a place that was extraordinarily dull.

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The walls in the mother and baby section of the prison – once a depressing gravestone colour – are decorated with cheerful murals of birds, flowers and fairytale characters.

The babies are no longer confined to the high concrete walls of the jail.

The introduction of a courtyard with a jungle gym, a sandpit, and tyres painted in bright colours, gives the moms and tots unit a feel like any other day-care centre.

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The courtyard is just one of the many features of the new unit that author Carla van der Spuy discovered on a visit to the women’s wing of the prison.

The prison is one of four women’s correctional facilities she visited to conduct research for her book, Blood on her Hands, which was launched this week.

The book, which ventures into the minds of woman criminals, examines controversial issues, such as babies being born behind bars.

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When Van der Spuy visited the Johannesburg Prison in 2013, there were 27 babies living with their mothers.

During the visit , Van der Spuy sat down with several woman inmates who had babies living with them in the prison.

She was also given a tour of the women’s wing of the facility by staff members.

The new unit, she discovered, was run by woman inmates.

“To be honest I was blown away by the facilities for female inmates and their babies,” Van der Spuy told Saturday Star.

“That section is so clean and neat. You could definitely mistake it for a normal day care centre.

“The (Department of Correctional Services) has gone all-out to try to create a friendly environment for the little ones. These cells are totally different from the image we get from television series, where you see a single, sinister bulb hanging from the ceiling, with dirty graffiti on the walls.

“The cells in this section reminded me of neat hospital rooms.”

But this isn’t always how it used to be, Van der Spuy was told on her tour.

“Babies were previously limited to a soulless section, and had to play on the cold cement floors in the long corridors and stay inside.

“I was taken to the section where the children living with their moms had been accommodated previously. There is a world of difference between the two,” she says.

The new moms and tots unit includes an impressive kitchen, a library where babies can watch cartoons, and a courtyard for the babies to play outside.

Babies are also provided with their own cots and no longer have to sleep in the same beds as their mothers.

“The babies are fed their meals with plastic spoons and plates (no tin plates for bambinos).

“The meals are more balanced than most children of that age get, I couldn’t help noticing.”

While the department has gone out of its way to make the women’s section of the Johannesburg Prison baby-friendly, Van der Spuy says that, in reality, the babies are in “detention” for those first years of their lives.

“Although they’re not aware of it, these children are in actual fact being punished with their moms.

“Their only ‘crime’ is that their mothers, who are serving sentences for violent crimes like robbery, among other things, have had a run-in with the law.

“It doesn’t matter how well these children are treated, they are living in isolation and aren’t exposed to the outside world. They never see dogs, cats, birds, cars or men. There are no father figures. It’s simply not part of their world,” she says.

Just like their moms, these babies’ freedom is also limited.

“Such small children need their moms during their first years of life, but when they get ‘out’ one day, they’re confronted with a different kind of trauma,” she says.

Previously, little ones were able to stay in prison with their mothers up to the age of 5.

However, things have changed. Mothers now have to let go of their babies when they reach the tender age of 2, Van der Spuy says.

“Female inmates with babies end up being the most depressed as they know they have to part with their babies when they turn 2.

“I was told the children previously lived with their mothers behind bars until the age of 5, but it’s been found they may suffer psychological damage from spending such a long time in prison.

“Therefore it’s better for them to leave prison at the age of 2 in order to adapt to society as early on as possible.”

One of the things that stood out for the author during her visit was that the majority of the woman inmates with babies were foreigners.

“I met a woman from Bolivia who was arrested at the airport for smuggling drugs. Although 3½ years old, her child lives with her in prison. However, she is an exception.

“Apparently it was too expensive to send the child back to Bolivia, so she has been allowed to keep her child with her.”

Asked whether having babies in prison helps woman inmates become rehabilitated more quickly, Van der Spuy says that, if anything, it makes them more depressed.

“These ladies know they will be separated from their babies, so there is no real joy for them.

“Many keep their babies in prison because they don’t have anyone on the outside to look after them – so they become further depressed and worried.”

Professor Anni Hesselink, a criminologist and researcher at Unisa, who has carried out extensive research on babies behind bars, believes when a baby is separated from its mother it can be a traumatic experience for it and its mother.

“It creates anxiety separation between the mother and the child, with serious effects on both parties’ self-esteem, self-worth, and guilt feelings about being a terrible mother and not being able to care for the child once it is removed,” Hesselink tells the Saturday Star.

“It furthermore creates stresses regarding whether the child will be well cared for once it is removed and whether the child will adapt and cope in a normal and free society (when it is removed).

“Often the mothers are depressed and stressed out due to the prison environment and because of their own insecurities and personal problems, coupled with little support and visits from family members.” .

Hesselink says the mothers often cannot cope with incarceration itself, being stigmatised by the community, and being rejected by their families, let alone caring for a baby or child.

“Most first-time offenders and mothers struggle to cope and adapt to the prison environment and the stresses in prison – with the rigid schedule and lack of choices and freedom in there.

“Many prisons are overcrowded, with competition for resources at the mothers and babies’ sections, high noise levels, a lack of privacy, and fights in the sections between the mothers, and these factors impede on the baby or toddler’s growth and positive development,” she says.

Living behind bars can have a detrimental affect on a baby, says Hesselink.

“A prison environment is not a natural caring, nurturing, loving, experimental-oriented environment for a child. The babies and toddlers are ‘prisoners’ like their mothers – they are imprisoned.

“It is a punitive, hard and cold environment, with little space for a woman to reach her full potential as a mother to be a loving, caring, nurturing, protective and warm mother, due to some of these factors (overcrowding and limited resources, and facilities are not conducive to a child’s development),” Hesselink adds.

Saturday Star

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