Inside Pollsmoor's special baby-mother unit

2016-10-11 18:14
Pollsmoor Prison (Picture: Supplied)

Pollsmoor Prison (Picture: Supplied)

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Cape Town - Girelda* is playing with her 11-month-old daughter on the bed they share in their home in Macassar. The pair have just been released on parole together. The child was born in Pollsmoor Prison while her mother served time for firearm possession.

"Maybe she doesn't need to know," says Girelda. "But I know someone is going to tell her."

Under South African law children can stay with their mothers in prison until the age of two. Pregnant women at Pollsmoor live in a separate unit until they give birth, at which point they move to the Baby Mother Unit (BMU) with their newborns.

The mothers choose how long to keep their babies in jail with them based on their own preferences and the availability of other guardians for the child. Until 2008, children could live in jail until they were five, but legislation was changed when new research emerged on the damaging developmental effects of early childhood imprisonment.  

When Girelda first thought she might be pregnant she wrote a letter to a prison social worker to  whom she felt close, Linda Loliwe. The social worker took Girelda to a clinic for the test and moved her to the pregnancy unit when it came out positive. 

"I didn't know how to feel," says Girelda.

First two years crucial

Loliwe, who works with pregnant women and mothers at Pollsmoor, thinks the first two years together are key for both mothers and babies in prison.

"The first two years are when you form attachments, when you learn that 'somebody loves me'," she says.

"The babies can remember their mothers' voices. They can remember their touch."

There are eight pregnant women and six new mothers under Loliwe's care in the Pollsmoor Baby Mother Unit, which opened in 2011. The first of its kind in South Africa, it is a large one-storey house with a garden, picket fence, kitchen and shared bedrooms.

The crèche next door has an indoor play area with toys and picture books. The BMU can provide lodging for 18 mothers and their babies and an offender can only stay at the house if her child also lives there.

Though the unit is just a few streets away from the maximum-security central Pollsmoor facility, it is surrounded by the houses of the prison staff, giving it the feeling of a suburban neighbourhood home.

First chance at parenting

In good weather prisoners employed as nannies wheel the infants in their strollers around the quiet streets of identical cinderblock homes. They can only walk for about ten minutes before running into a fence or a security guard separating the neighbourhood from the "outside".

Some of the wardens' children play in the road, stopping to watch the nannies walk by in blue Pollsmoor uniforms. The women stop the strollers outside the metal gate topped by barbed wire and wait to be let back in by one of the BMU's six female wardens.

Many mothers at Pollsmoor have other children outside of the prison system being raised by partners or relatives. For some offenders it's the first chance they've ever had to "parent their children", says Loliwe.

Girelda has an 11-year-old daughter who was brought up by her grandparents until Girelda was released from prison last month. When the girl was born Girelda's addictions made it difficult to be fully present as a mother, she says.

As a teenager she had fallen in with a rich crowd that liked to experiment with drugs.

"Everybody used them, but most grew out of it." Girelda struggled with drug dependency for years.

If her younger child had been born outside Pollsmoor, Girelda says she would have asked her grandparents to raise her.

But "inside prison, it's much different. It's you alone."


Lindiwe Jonas, director of the Female Centre at Pollsmoor and of the Baby Mother Unit, says the first two years mother and baby spend together can deter mothers from committing new crimes after they are released.

"It's then that they realise, 'Hey, I should be home with my children'."

Like other women in the pregnancy crèche, Girelda gave birth at Mowbray Maternity Hospital.

She then returned to Pollsmoor to live in the Baby Mother Unit with her newborn daughter. A few weeks later, a Department of Home Affairs truck came to the BMU to issue a birth certificate and register the child as a citizen.

Amahle**, who lived in the BMU with Girelda, has just sent her 2-year-old son home to live with his grandmother. She says her transition from the Baby Mother Unit to central Pollsmoor, where she will finish her sentence, was "traumatic".

"I'm still getting used to it."

Making memories

Amahle's son was three months old when she was sentenced. For the first four months she took care of him full-time. Amahle then got a job in the Pollsmoor textiles department, sewing uniforms for inmates and wardens. While she was at work during the day Amahle's son stayed with the nannies in the BMU crèche.

"It's not like you have a family environment," says Amahle.

When she is released in November Amahle wants to open her own sewing business and continue raising her son. 

"I'm hanging on to that," she says.

Jessica**, Amahle's roommate in the BMU, also sent her 2-year-old son home last month to live with his grandmother.

"Sometimes I was thinking I'm selfish to keep him here," she says, but "that's what keeps me going - the memories. My hopes are to go outside and still have that bond that we had inside."

Improved conditions

Stephanie van Wyk, director of the halfway home Beauty for Ashes, has been running skills workshops and religious programmes for women in Pollsmoor since 1997. She says the conditions for mothers and babies at the prison had improved significantly throughout her career.

Until 2011, babies at Pollsmoor, like in other South African prisons, lived in the cells with their mothers. Their only exposure to the outdoors was a cement courtyard and the infants were surrounded by "the slamming of gates, people swearing and fighting", says Van Wyk.

The new unit is so different that it often inspires animosity between women who must stay in the main facility and those living at the BMU, she says.

Kathy*, the house parent at Beauty for Ashes and a former Pollsmoor inmate, says the unit is "lovely" by prison standards. The unit has hot water while the rest of Pollsmoor does not. The BMU kitchen serves fresh fruit and vegetables nearly every day.

It's a far cry from facilities elsewhere in South Africa, says Stacey Adams, board member of the advocacy group Babies Behind Bars.

Her organisation, which works primarily in Gauteng, has found there is little intellectual stimulation for the babies in prison and problems with medical care are a common feature.

Babies in Gauteng often do not receive vaccinations because the prison clinics are out of stock. It takes one to two weeks for a mother to request that her child be taken to a doctor outside the prison system.

"The women are prisoners at the end of the day and they don't get special benefits," says Adams.

"And the babies suffer."

Reintegration of children

Girelda is one of the "lucky" ones, says the BMU social worker, because mother and child were released together to a safe home with supportive maternal grandparents.

In most cases at the Baby Mother Unit the mother's sentence exceeds two years and social workers must find alternative guardians for the infant until her release.

Loliwe says she begins this placement process as early as possible. If the mother has a relative who can raise the child — usually a grandparent — Loliwe asks the office of the Department of Social Development in the mother's community to perform a background check on the potential guardian.

Officials meet the relative, review his or her employment, criminal and medical history, visit the home where the child might stay and report back to Loliwe. If both social work teams agree that the guardian is suitable they begin a series of visits so that the infant can get used to the new family.  

If the social workers consider the guardian unsuitable, they explore options for foster care or, as a last resort, children's homes. In the three years that Loliwe has been working for the Baby Mother Unit, two babies have been fostered and one infant placed in a children's home.

Almost all guardians of babies who lived in the BMU are eligible for the child support grant of R350 per month or the foster grant of R890 per month if the child is legally fostered.

Reintegration of mothers

Monique is another of the "lucky" ones at Pollsmoor. She and her 1-year-old daughter have just been released from the BMU together. Monique was arrested last year for robbery, which she says was motivated by drug dependency.

She was let out on parole but she violated the conditions of the parole and re-entered prison. While on parole she fell pregnant.

Monique stayed in the pregnancy unit and moved to the BMU with her daughter once she was born.

"I wouldn't mind going back there," Monique says. "There isn't anything for me on the outside."

The newborn is Monique's second child, and, she says, "I did not give [my older daughter] the love I'm giving this one."

Monique and both her daughters now live with the children's paternal grandparents in Macassar. Monique's boyfriend, the father of her two children, must serve 18 more months in prison and will go to court soon for a potentially longer sentence. Monique relies on the child support grants — R700 a month for both children — while she looks for work.

She says the job search has been challenging because many employers will not hire someone with a criminal record. Transport to the city centre to look for work is also expensive. She plans to ask her boyfriend's parents for a loan for next month to cover expenses for the extra food and nappies for the 1-year-old.

"It's almost like God put me [in prison] for a reason. He knew I had no support."

"I just want her to have the education I didn't have," says a crying Monique as she strokes her baby daughter's hair. 

Beauty for Ashes resident Carol's* three sons live with their grandmother while she serves her parole time at the centre. None of the boys lived with her in Pollsmoor but they visit her on weekends.

Women getting out of prison "do have places to go but they are not the right places," she says.

According to Carol many of her peers coming out of Pollsmoor were faced with the prospect of returning to abusive relationships and violent neighborhoods where it was tempting to fall back into drug addiction.

Carol had some advice for women leaving prison.

"Don't go back where you came from".

*only first name used to protect identity and criminal record

** names have been changed

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