Gates slam, voices scream, and somewhere someone bangs on a metal bar. She lies on the bed staring up at the ceiling, her fingers opening and closing. Her lips press in a heart-shaped pout, and she jerks at times. It could be shock at the deafening screams that make my ears ring, or part of her reaction to the drugs still in her system. Whatever the case, I want her to look up, because I have brought her new clothes. I wonder if she’ll notice or if she’s unmoved because of her innocence. Does despair hold her soul because she’s doing time for someone else’s drug crime? I touch her abdomen gently, and she responds with movement. She shows no hint of despair; that’s the emotion I project in picking her up. This innocent prisoner of nine months, a baby behind metal bars.
Until 2011, South African female offenders who gave birth in prison were allowed to keep their children with them inside their cells until they were five years of age. These infants were prisoners, but not for crimes of their own.
Prisons in South Africa are notorious for gangsterism, drugs, and overcrowding, especially Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, a concrete building built to accommodate 1,690 inmates but now houses 8,000. Into this environment of gangsterism and negativity, innocent children were born.
Six years ago, the construction of a special mother-baby unit in one of the homes a few blocks away from the prison changed the lives of children born inside prison. Mothers and their children now live in a space outside the prison, serving a sentence together. This space is a safer, more peaceful environment, where children are exposed to something of a normal childhood, with painted rooms, toys, and a garden.
These precious, vulnerable babies are born into a shattered world, emerging from a womb of flesh into a womb of metal.
Visions of forgotten children aging in prison haunt me. My journey toward understanding how I should feel about this issue took me from inside the prison to a home for female offenders leaving prison.
A Beauty for Ashes houseparent who lives among nine women, now called ex-offenders, greets me. Many women come out of prison with nowhere to go; they cannot go back to their broken worlds and broken families, so they turn to this home for help. The director of Beauty for Ashes, Stephanie, initially worked inside Pollsmoor Prison, running programs and church services for inmates. But she felt burdened for the ex-offenders who had no hope outside of prison. Of the ninety women who have come and gone through the doors of this nonprofit in the thirteen years of its existence, half are orphans. Stephanie tells me that without parents, or guardians, they lived their lives to dull the pain and find love.
Friends of mine are foster parents and advocates. They work tirelessly to better the lives of orphans and encourage others to adopt. But this is different. I’ve never thought of or connected crime and orphaned offenders. Something about this evokes sorrow in me. My work with gendercide in China for over four years exposes me to the fact that over 125 million orphans are in the world today. I wonder, how many of these orphans will turn to crime for survival?
I sit in the neat office and listen to the stories the gentle houseparent with dark hair and age lines shares with me—successful ones and not so successful ones. The house is quiet as some of the residents now have jobs and others are finishing their education by returning to school. Many of these women have endured great suffering, such as childhood neglect or trauma from various forms of abuse.
Angelina’s story is one example. She was released from the prison but had nowhere to go. She was given a one-year stay at the home, but at the first evening’s supper she just stared down at her knife and fork. Her parents had so neglected her as a child that she never learned how to use a knife and fork. So now a stranger teaches her how to use silverware.
Another woman was raped by a man she knew. Two weeks later he came back to her home and forced himself on her again. She stabbed him and spent the next few years in a prison cell for murder, her body traumatized by the abuse of rape and her soul traumatized by the wounds of secondary victimization.
Yet in the eyes of these women, I see beauty. They have gone on to study, find jobs, attend church, and build lives for themselves. They are not success stories; they are women who have found words for their trauma and have managed not only to overcome the abuse they endured at the hands of others but at the hands of themselves.
I have much to think about as I stand to leave, but one more thing tugs at my heart. “Have any of the women in the home given birth inside prison?” I ask. The answer is no, but most do have children, and bonding with them often prevents relapsing into crime.
In the final year of my criminology degree studies, it was compulsory to visit prisons and witness the realities of prison life. But I had never thought about the babies behind bars. I never saw them, the ones serving time, or how neglect, abuse, and pain can lead people to the inside of a prison cell. These experiences don’t excuse the time or the crime, but they provide a place for me as a Christian to help. Ex-offenders who leave prison with a history of pain need help. They are stepping back into the world, facing the life that once led to crime. Their lives hang in the balance.
On the drive home, I reflect on the needs of the women at Beauty for Ashes, but I am also struck with a yearning to do something that can expose them to sights and sounds that are beautiful. I pray, pick up my phone, and contact a theater director I have come to know. I share with him about the home, about the girls and their lives. Cultural activities can change our worldview, but I don’t have to convince him; he is already excitedly signing tickets for these women to attend his next show. A week later I received a touching message from Stephanie, saying how much they all enjoyed themselves.
In the smallest ways I can do something for someone else, be it theater tickets, clothes, or a photo shoot. The smallest gifts can be significant to others. These women and their stories, both the messy parts and the good parts, stay with me. And in little ways, I still hope to help somehow, because someone else’s life story has many different sides.