Liberating babies from jail

2010-04-24 09:48

AT the age of two years and three months, Bongiwe Mthembu* doesn’t know anything about the outside world. She has been living in the women’s section of Westville Prison since she was born.

Her mother, Jabu* (37), was pregnant when she was incarcerated while facing several charges of ­identity fraud. She is now serving an eight-year prison sentence.

Bongiwe lives with her ­mother in what was, until recently, an old cell. The cell has been renovated and painted a colourful pink, and it sports a few toys and teddy bears.

During the day she attends a crèche where she plays and learns with 11 other children of offenders, but in the afternoon she returns to her mother’s cell before the bars are shut ­behind them.

Bongiwe is one of 143 children in prisons across South Africa who are kept in these facilities because they are too young to be separated from their mothers.

Gauteng accounts for the largest number (87), followed by KwaZulu-Natal (23) and Western Cape (19).

The mothers are awaiting trial or serving prison terms for crimes such as murder, attempted murder, fraud, corruption and theft, among others.

The children’s ages range from a month old to about three years old. In years gone by kids behind bars were allowed to stay with their mothers up to the age of five.

Spokesman for the Department of Correctional Services David Hlabane said women made up just 2.2% of the prison population.

“Since the Correctional Services Amendment Act of 2008, the children of women prisoners are only allowed to stay with their mothers from birth until two years of age. Those older than two are still there because we are trying to place them with their family members outside the prison or with foster parents,” Hlabane said.

The act of keeping children behind bars with their mothers has been heavily criticised as “inhumane” by human rights organisations.

South Africa, which is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which makes provision for children’s welfare while they are under institutional care, has often come under fire for the way it treats children.

Human rights activists say their visits to correctional facilities in South Africa have shown that being incarcerated for long periods affects a child’s chances in life. A study by the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Rehabilitation of ­Offenders in 2006 found that the restrictive environment “hampers the child’s psychological, cognitive and social development”.

Derick Mdluli of the Justice for Prisoners and Detainees Trust ­echoed these sentiments: “These children are living in punitive conditions not because they have done something wrong, but because their mothers were found guilty of crimes.

“That is why we have been calling for these children to be placed with other family members, and in cases where their parents can be given ­parole that this be done speedily.”

Hlabane said things were changing since his department launched the Imbeleko Project. “We have devised child-friendly environments in prisons that include ­converting existing cells into suitable mother-and-child units and ­decorating such units differently, making them more stimulating for children and more comfortable for the incarcerated mother to concentrate on the child’s needs.

“We are also working with inmates to find suitable families or foster ­parents for children who are older than two years.”

Hlabane said that by working with the Department of Social Welfare they had been able to arrange for women prisoners to apply for and get ­social grants for their children. This, he said, helped to provide food and clothing for the children, because ­prison authorities ­offered only milk ­formula and basic food. Clothes were donated by charity organisations and relatives of the prisoners.

Within the next few months ­Bongiwe and her mother will be separated because prison authorities are ­making final arrangements to set her up with her mother’s sister and ­family in Pietermaritzburg.

Bongiwe’s mother is dreading the day. “I know that my sister will take good care of her, but she has been with me since birth and it will not be easy for either of us to let go. She has been living around only women here and she often struggled to recognise her father when he came to visit.”

Nokuthula Shelembe* (40), who is serving time for attempted murder, also had her baby son with her in ­prison. He stayed for more than three years, until her parents collected him early last year.

“I felt he had to go because he knew nothing outside of prison. He was learning swear words and bad ­language because girls here speak ­any old how. He picked up cigarette butts and mimicked smoking. At least with my family he will learn some discipline. Now he visits me at least twice a month,” she said.

*Names have been changed to ­protect the children’s identity

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.