Most children don’t remember the details of their first few years of life, but South Africa is working to ensure that those who do won’t remember a childhood behind bars.
South Africa recently opened the first of its new prison units tailored specifically to incarcerated mothers and their children. The opening of the Cape Town facility signals the beginning of a departure from the current practice of allowing the children to live directly in the cell with the mother until the child reaches the age of two.
"The mothers have wronged society and given birth to their children here, [but] the children should not take the responsibility or be punished," Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula told South Africa's Cape Times. "So this is in their best interest—not to make prisons more comfortable," she said.
South Africa has been under pressure to change its practice of allowing children to grow up in jail cells for some time. Preceding the creation of the mother-child units was the Imbeleko Project, that attempted to address the concerns of advocates by redecorating and painting cells and providing “child-friendly environments.”
In most U.S. states, a pregnant woman with a state prison term outlasting the term of her pregnancy will generally be separated from her child almost immediately after delivery. In instances where the child is allowed to stay with the mother, the average maximum time the child is allowed to stay is 18 months. Critics of the U.S. system, where many female inmates are handcuffed to the bed during delivery, conversely charge that it is inhumane to unwillingly rip a child from its mother’s arms immediately after birth and favor options where the mother and child can spend more time together before separation.
Still, South Africa is ready for change. Nokuthula Shelembe, a woman serving time for attempted murder, had her son with her in prison. He stayed with Shelembe for over three years until her parents took the child; a move that she welcomed.
(Photo: REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil)