When we speak of prison we tend to think of dangerous and violent men incarcerated for henious crimes, but we seem to forget women also commit crime and end up behind bars.
As the country celebrates Women’s Month, The Sunday Independent visited the Bizzah Makhate Correctional Services in Kroonstad to speak to women who are serving time.
The prison houses 206 inmates and is divided into different sections to accommodate women of different age groups.
There are 17 juveniles aged 20-21 incarcerated and prison rules dictate that when they turn 26 they are allocated to another section for adults. And if they serve longer sentences, they may graduate to the elderly section.
We found Kelebogile Siwa, 39, in the adult section, where she has been since 2011 for murder. She said she had been on trial for 13 months before she was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. She said her time there had not been easy and she had had difficulty adjusting to prison life and routine.
“It was not easy. You know you will be cut out from society that day and then you’ll have to live in another environment which you know nothing about. It is something that comes just like that.”
Siwa didn’t say whether she was in for killing her partner, but said that many women end up behind bars because of the actions of men.
She said many had to retaliate against being abused by their partners.
“Most of us women are here because of relationships that did not work out. You find yourself being abused and then somewhere you work against the law and find yourself in here,” Siwa said.
Despite being locked up, she remained positive the prison’s rehabilitation programmes could help inmates work out their frustrations and fears. She said she had recognised her mistakes, but she had also realised how unfair life could be.
“I can only change myself, I deserve to be happy. Someone who loves you will love you and you’ll also understand when someone doesn’t necessarily love you. It’s a curve where you can learn a lot if you’re willing. It’s a choice you have to take of doing the right thing, of mixing with the right people. Accept where you are wrong and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
The mother of one said she had taken ownership of the crime she had committed and had asked to see the people she had wronged to ask them for forgiveness. She added that it had not been an easy process.
“Remember, you go there not knowing how they are going to react to you. You have to keep it in your mind that it is not about the crime, it’s not about me, it’s not about them. It’s just the right thing to do. It was not easy, but even in here, you will learn to leave everything to God.”
While trying to do right by those she had hurt, Siwa has had to deal with the hardship of her own family turning its back on her.
She said her family had not visited her since she was incarcerated and she would have to work it out when she was released.
“I have a six-year-old daughter and she doesn’t know I am in prison.”
Pierrette van Wald, 29, is a parolee from Bloemfontein. She is living in Kroonstad to finish a welding course. She plans on making something of her life through the hard lessons she has learnt, she said.
Van Wald spent two years behind bars for theft. She said prison had taught her to appreciate even the smallest gestures. “I started believing in people. I started trusting myself.”
The forgiving process was not just about forgiving herself but also about forgiving people she thought had wronged her.
“I was in the wrong space and then it became a habit,” she said about being caught stealing money out of her manager’s account, adding that she was grateful to those who caught her and sent her to prison.
“The situation we are all going through in here has made us all stronger, I believe. You need to adapt in here otherwise you will suffer on your own.”
The hardest thing about the day she was sentenced had been when she was given a seven-year jail term.
“I collapsed in my seat. My lawyer said I would be getting 9-11 months and they were talking about seven years. But I accepted it. While my sentence was essentially seven years, two years were suspended so it was five years officially, which meant after two-and-a-half years I got released.”
The mother of two was released three weeks ago and is still adapting to the outside life.
“A lot of my everyday routine I want to do like I did in there, like eat at a certain time, be quiet at a certain time and bath at a certain time,” she said.
Van Wald said some of her family had been supportive during the time she was in prison. She is living with a friend for three months and afterwards she will live with her parents.
Prison no place to raise children
In a section behind high brick walls, surrounded by barbed wire and metal bars at the Bizzah Makhate Correctional Services Female Centre in Kroonstad, female prison inmates are raising their babies.
It's not easy having to raise a child in a pri- son cell.
However, the Department of Correctional Services tries to provide the necessary nutrition, medical care and social programmes to ensure the well-being of the children.
Head of the centre Tselane Modise says the centre tries to make things easier for the children.
“It’s not ideal having children in prison. The institution is not good for children. It’s a place for offenders.
"But we do our level best to ensure that the babies' stay here is normal and they don’t feel incarcerated because they didn’t offend anyone,” says Modise.
The Bizzah Makhate unit currently houses three mothers and their babies.
Another prison inmate is pregnant, meaning the number will soon increase to four. Prison is also not an ideal place for a woman to give birth.
The children of mothers in prison attend a crèche where staff seek to keep them busy and stimulated.
Mothers and their children stay in a separate unit from other convicts. Their cells consist of a bunk bed for the mother and a tiny cot for the baby.
The system does not allow children to stay with their mothers after they turn two.
At that age, the children are taken into the care of a family member chosen by the mother.
Social workers prepare the mothers at least four months in advance before they have to part ways with their children.
The suitability of the people chosen is assessed by the social workers. If family members are unavailable or unsuitable as carers, the children are placed in foster care.
In the prison, the mothers then return to the general section to join the rest of the inmates.
They are allowed contact visits from their children. Inmates are only allowed contact visits six months after their sentencing.