Durban - Government has launched an initiative to ensure that South Africa's 168 babies and toddlers who live with their incarcerated mothers, do so in a friendly environment and are later placed in alternate centres outside prison walls.
The Imbeleko Project, which is currently being rolled out in different provinces, aims to ensure very child is kept in conditions conducive for optimal development and that they are treated in a manner that takes into account the child's age and basic needs.
The Correctional Services Amendment Act currently only allows children to live with their incarcerated mothers for between five and two years.
It is hoped that this law will make certain that children do not spend too much time with their mothers and that they are reintegrated into society at a tender age to be socialized in a proper and natural environment.
The project is the result of a visit by the Deputy Minister of Correctional Services, Hlengiwe Mkhize, to Durban's Westville Correctional Centre.
"I was touched by the situation of babies under the age of five years living in very difficult conditions when they have actually committed no crime," said Mkhize.
These children receive very few visits from family members, they have limited space to play and have little exposure to the external environment. The deputy minister said this was clearly not conducive to the development of the child.
She said that developmental psychologists had also confirmed that the children's physical, emotional, social and intellectual needs must all be met if they are to enjoy life, develop their full potential and grow into participating, contributing adults.
"We should find homes for the children, outside correctional centres ... in line with the protection measures entrenched in the Children Act 38 of 2005 as amended, which sets out principles for the protection of children," said
She said that alternative options include arranging for the children to live with caring extended family members or placing them at suitable government institutions or appropriate private homes.
The Deputy Minister conceded it would not be an easy process, but said that government would rely on experts, non-governmental organisations, faith-based organisations and civil society to make it happen.
She used the East London Correctional Centre as an example of the department's plan. The babies and children are being accommodated within special units which have been designed within a traditional correctional centre to suit mothers and babies.
Mkhiza emphasized that government was treating vulnerable groups, especially children, as a priority.
"Our decision to address the plight of babies through the launch of the Imbeleko Project is aligned to the Government Programme of Action which calls for the creation of a safe environment for all children."
South Africa is also a signatory to various international agreements on the protection of children.
Government has undertaken an audit of female centres and of mother-and-child units to assist the department in identifying what needs to be done to harmonise facilities.
Zanele Ngcobo, a mother behind bars, said correctional facilities were not a proper place to raise a child, but it was often unavoidable because there was no alternative.
"Children need a proper environment where they can be free. They should not live in a place that is like a cage. I know it is painful to be separated form your baby, but if she or he is going to get a proper environment, it is okay," said Ngcobo.
The department said all offenders have an important role to play in ensuring that all the government interventions for babies within facilities are implemented. It encouraged offenders to take part in activities that benefit society.