Both Saturday Star and Sowetan brought attention to the issue of children living with convicted mothers in prison. We would particularly like to commend Saturday Star and Carien du Plessis for their article “Have children in prison reached a cell-by date?”, published on 29 August 2009. The article stands out for several reasons. It is well written, it looks at a complex issue in which children are involved, it looks at relevant legislation, and it sources an expert and several political office bearers.
The Saturday Star article is about young children up to the age of five that are in prison with their mothers who are serving time after they have been convicted of a crime. Many of these children are born in prison. As the article explains, as a result, they sometimes do not know what “men” are, since their only contact is with women – mothers and female prison staff.
The article examines the debate concerning what arrangements should be made for children of mothers of convicted criminals, examining the views of experts, the positions of ministers, and current research. A balance is sought between children’s rights and the punishment and rehabilitation of convicted criminals.
The article gives the position of the current and former Correctional Services Ministers, that prison is no place for babies. It also mentions the seminal 2007 Constitutional Court ruling, which suspended the sentence of a convicted criminal woman, since she was her children’s only caregiver.
It questions the suitability and problems raised by existing mother and child units, explaining current regulations and how the age limit will be changed from five to two, under the Correctional Services Amendment Act.
Prison non-governmental organisation Nicro and their deputy executive director Celia Dawson are sourced extensively. They give the view that children should be removed from prisons when they are six months old. Research by Nicro is sourced, which has shown that prisons themselves often do not have adequate facilities and resources to cope with mothers and their children. Furthermore, it is acknowledged by Nicro that while the bond between mother and child is important, other factors have to be considered as well, such as the child’s development, and bonding with their siblings and fathers.
At the end of the article, it is reported that the department of Correctional Services has started to audit its facilities for women, and profile the children in their care to determine availability of social support, and the circumstances of their mothers. It is clear that this is in the best interest of the children. From the reader’s perspective, the report is encouraging as it shows children’s rights being taken seriously, and government trying to ensure, with the limited means available to them, that these rights are protected.
The one minor shortcoming of the article is that it refers to illegal migrants who, prison officers claim, commit minor crimes to ensure that they have access to medical care. Not only does this stereotype migrants in a negative way, it also leaves unexplored the rights of migrants, even when they are undocumented, to medical care.
Sowetan published a small photo feature on the subject as well (“Children in prisons”, 28/08/09, p. 251) written by Dudu Busani, with photographs by Elvis Ntombela. The photographs capture the predicament these mothers and young children find themselves in, and the limited facilities that are available to them. The short article that accompanies the photographs dispels the myth that the Department of Correctional Services seeks to remove children from the care of their mothers. It is clear that it seeks to promote children’s rights.
Although an effort has been made to protect the identities of the mothers and the children in the pictures, the names of the women and one of the children are provided in the captions. This directly and indirectly identifies the children. Identification in these cases is not in the best interest of the children involved, even if they are too young to remember their time in prison, as other people, including those from their communities, may ridicule them for it, and they may suffer stigmatisation.
Overall both Saturday Star and Sowetan are to be commended for bringing attention to the rights of these vulnerable, and often invisible, children.
1Names in the article have been concealed by MMA to protect the children’s identities. NB.Saturday Star and Sowetan were contacted by email and given the opportunity to respond, but no response was received.