Last Updated: Monday, 20 October 2014, 09:33 GMT

South Africa: Innocents in jail

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 22 March 2010
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), South Africa: Innocents in jail, 22 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4bb06c81c.html [accessed 20 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

DURBAN, 22 March 2010 (IRIN) - Bongiwe Mthembu* has spent the first 27 months of her life in the women's section of Westville Prison, near the port city of Durban, South Africa. She was still in the womb when her mother, Jabu, 37, was sentenced to an eight-year jail term for identity fraud.

The toddler and her mother share a cell, newly painted in pink; every morning she goes to a crèche in the prison with 11 other children of offenders; in the afternoon she returns to the cell.

Redecorating the cell was part of the Imbeleko Project (caring for babies, in Zulu), launched by the Department of Correctional Services in September 2009 to make the living conditions of incarcerated children more amenable.

Bongiwe is one of about 143 children living in prisons across South Africa because they are too young to be separated from their mothers. Gauteng Province has 87 children incarcerated with their mothers, KwaZulu-Natal has 23, and Western Cape 19.

Their mothers are awaiting trial or serving prison terms for such crimes as murder, attempted murder, fraud, corruption and theft. The children range in age from newborn to about three years old; some were born in prison, others arrived with their mothers.

According to the Department of Correctional Services, the number of such children has been as high as 300 or more - a practice that has dismayed human rights organizations.

Department of Correctional Services spokesman David Hlabane told IRIN that women only accounted for 2.2 percent of South Africa's prison population.

Child friendly jails

"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 over two years are there because we are still trying to place them with their family members outside the prison, or foster parents," Hlabane said.

The Imbeleko Project was "devised [to create] 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," he said. Facilities like crèches with toys and books are part of the project.

"We are also working with inmates themselves to find suitable families or foster parents for children who are over two years old. First, we have to make the inmate understand that life behind bars is not geared towards the growth and development of a child," he said.

In cooperation with the Department of Social Welfare, female prisoners have been receiving child grants to help them provide more for their children, as the prison authorities only offered milk formula and food for the children. Baby clothes are donated by charity organizations or the family members of prisoners.

South Africa, a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, has often been criticized by human rights organizations for allowing young children to be jailed with their mothers, and claim that incarcerating children for long periods negatively affects a child.

A study by the National Institute for the Rehabilitation of Offenders (NICRO) in 2006 found that "The facilities currently catering for infants and children who stay with their incarcerated mothers are a restrictive environment hampering the child's psychological, cognitive and social development."

Derick Mdluli, of the Justice for Prisoners and Detainees Trust (JPDT), told IRIN: "Prison is like hell for grown-up people. For the infants and children it is even worse. These children are living in punitive conditions, not because they have done something wrong but because their mothers were found guilty of committing crimes."

Separating mother and child

Mdluli, a former prisoner, works to promote inmate rights. "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, this is to be done speedily," he said.

Bongiwe's mother told IRIN she is dreading the time her daughter will leave prison. "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 recognize her father when he came to visit."

Nokuthula Shelembe*, 40, convicted of attempted murder, had her baby son with her in prison for just over three years until her parents collected him early last year.

"I felt that he had to go because he knew nothing outside prison. When we rode a bus from one prison to another he kept on asking me all sorts of things because he had taken a bus for the first time," she said.

"Also, he was learning swear words and bad language because the girls here speak anyhow. He picked up cigarettes butts and mimicked smoking them. At least with my family he will learn some discipline."

She said at first her son struggled to get used to the life outside prison and often cried because he wanted to be re-united with his mother in prison. "But now he is fine and is attending pre-school. He visits me at least twice a month."

*Names changed to protect the identity of the children

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