Mothers in Prison

Parent24 uncovers hair-raising stats, shares true stories from mothers and speaks to those on the ground to pull back
the curtain on maternal incarceration in South Africa

It's no secret that prison conditions in South Africa are grim.

Inmates are subject to inhumane living conditions caused by extreme overcrowding, inadequate ablution facilities and poor healthcare provision, among others issues. 

Largely due to these conditions, prisons are rife with disease and sexual violence. 

Why should we care?

Many turn a blind eye to these issues, because they believe that this does not affect them, and even that the prisoners are getting what they deserve for their crimes. 

But prisoners do not stay in prison, and as they move back in to the population they face several challenges including physical and mental health issues and potential for further crime and violence. 

But one, albeit tiny, percentage of the prison population that is overlooked is that of the innocent children who are born behind bars and spend as long as two years incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. 

These children spend a hefty part of their formative years surrounded by these inhumane conditions, before they are forcibly removed from their mothers when they turn two. They are then placed with families who are as good as strangers to them, or fostered by actual complete strangers.

How does this affect these children? How do the mothers feel? Where are the fathers? Is there hope for reunification and reconciliation after an experience like this? 

In this series, Parent24 asks and answers these hard questions, uncovering some hair-raising stats, sharing true stories from imprisoned mothers, and speaking to experts and those on the ground to pull back the curtain on the seemingly cruel practice of removing children from their mothers when they turn two. 

Follow the series below

How does a mother end up in prison?

When we speak of prisoners, we tend to think of dangerous, violent men incarcerated for heinous crimes; however, women also commit crimes and end up behind bars.

In fact, South African statistics indicate that 75% of female prisoners have children who live outside of prison. 

NICRO's Operations Manager Betzi Pierce tells Parent24 that pregnant women and mothers, like many offenders found guilty in a court of law, are sentenced for any variety of criminal transgressions.

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Commit the crime, do the time

Being pregnant or responsible for children might be considered a mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing, but it does not mean a woman will be let off for her crime. 

Nonetheless, the fact that they are mothers does need to be taken into account.  

According to a retired Western Cape magistrate, who spoke to Parent24 on condition of anonymity, prosecutors and magistrates do not receive training on sentencing pregnant women or mothers of young children.

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'One day I went out and didn't come back because I had been arrested'

"My child wasn't in prison with me, but he was 6 months old when I was sentenced in 2014," Faheema* tells Parent24

She confesses she was a substance user for 12 years. And in that time, she was in and out of prison regularly. 

"Leaving him was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I had never been away from him, and then one day I went out and didn't come back because I had been arrested." 

She didn't see him throughout her sentence because her family didn't visit her when she was in prison. 

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'DCS facilities are not meant to house children'

There are 243 prisons across South Africa, nine of which are exclusively for women. 

According to the latest Department of Correctional Services (DCS) 2019/2020 Annual Report, there are over 4 110 sentenced and un-sentenced female inmates, forming a fraction of the whole at just 2.5% of over 150 000 sentenced and un-sentenced offenders, in prisons in South Africa.

NICRO's Operations Manager Betzi Pierce explains that prior to 1994, female offenders with infants were not separated from the general female prison population. 

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For babies, prison can prove fatal

Children need to develop a strong emotional attachment with their primary caregivers, specifically their mothers, within a caring, nurturing and stimulating environment to ensure optimal development.

Any separation from their mother is potentially damaging to a child.

However, Betzi Pierce, operations manager at Nicro, says one needs to consider this question within the broader framework of maternal incarceration.

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Who benefits most from maintaining a bond?

Studies show that children whose mothers have served time suffer from antisocial-delinquent behaviour, mental health problems, unemployment, school failure, and drug abuse.

Many often end up becoming offenders themselves. 

In 2006, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) conducted a local study exploring the impact of imprisonment on a child who remains with the mother during her incarceration.

Betzi Pierce, the organisation's Operations Manager, tells Parent24 that their research found that a child is strongly influenced by the home and social environment, as well as the culture it grows up in during their early, formative childhood years.

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'It was extremely difficult, but I am not sorry that I made that decision'

Belinda* tells Parent24 she committed a crime in 2004.

"The investigation and court case took almost two years. I got pregnant in 2005. It was unplanned," she says.

The baby was born in early 2006, and Belinda was sentenced when he was five months old. "I made my own mistakes and did not want to add to those. I took my son with me. It was extremely difficult, but I am not sorry that I made that decision."

Belinda says when she was at Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison, the mothers there were taken to Victoria Hospital in Wynberg in cuffs.

"There they gave birth under guard and one arm cuffed to the hospital bed in the maternity ward," she says.

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Separation, and a new home for the children

Research indicates that children of imprisoned mothers are most frequently taken in by grandparents or other family members, and only rarely by the father.

Betzi Pierce, operations manager at Nicro, says in her experience some fathers are responsible and elect to take care of their children, whether they are married to the incarcerated mothers of the children or not.

On the other hand, many fathers never pay maintenance for their children or stop contributing to the care of their children following the arrest of the mother, she says.

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'The ladies do long for their children'

Venessa Padayachee, a social worker and member of, trains community members to become mentors and life coaches for people who are released from prison and youth at risk.

"Every year over 45 000 prisoners are released and more than 87% of these reoffend," she tells Parent24. "With our help and by embarking on one of our programmes, the reoffence rate falls to less than 8%."

"I know it is not easy for the moms as they have the stress of prison life and have to take care of their babies. I know it was a comfort for one of the women I met, as she was pregnant going into prison. It was what kept her going and gave her hope."

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"The day when she had to let go, it was terrible to watch her..."

"My child was not born in prison," Candice* tells Parent24. "She came with me to prison when she was [a] one-year-old."

"I ended up in prison because of wrong choices that I made. I chose to do wrong, but it had consequences that I regret today when I think of the victims and my family," she says. 

When Candice was incarcerated, children could stay with their mothers until they turned five, but she was glad that it changed to two years.

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Visitation and relationship maintenance

Ina Thompson, a member of the National Executive Board (NEB) of the South African Association for Social Workers in Private Practice (SAASWIPP), shares with Parent24 that children are prepared for visits to their mothers.

Thompson says that during the initial visits facilitated by the social worker, children are also introduced to the visiting system and procedures at the correctional centre. This is to ensure continued visits without the presence of the social worker. 

She says that it often happens that the visits are not facilitated but that a family member accompanies the children to visit their mother.   

Venessa Padayachee, a social worker and member of Midway,  tells Parent24 "One lady whose baby was removed was put in foster care, and I remember it was two years later, and the foster mom hadn't brought the child to visit."

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Rehabilitation, and hope for the future

The reintegration and rehabilitation of incarcerated offenders is one of the main objectives of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) in South Africa.

Overcrowding, however, continues to be one of the department's critical challenges and it negatively impacts its ability to meet the needs of incarcerated mothers.

The DCS has specifically stated that it can only provide a limited number of rehabilitation programmes due to a severe lack of resources. 

The availability of reintegration and rehabilitation programmes is also greatly dependent on the facility where the offender finds herself.

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Written and designed by Elizabeth Mamacos

With thanks to:

Social African Association for Social Workers in Private Practice