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South African prison babies get the keys to live a life of freedom

CAPE TOWN -- Unathi Jack's baby son was terrified when she put him down outside for the first time, after months in a cramped South African jail cell cut off from the world.

Now, one-year-old Chibueze confidently roams about in the country's first dedicated unit to ensure that babies in lock up are not punished for their mothers' crimes at the notorious Pollsmoor prison.

“He's got space now to move up and down,” said Jack, who is serving a five-year sentence for drug possession.

“When he's outside, he doesn't want to go inside the house again — he wants to be there outside.”

Sitting in the unit's cozy creche filled with toys and learning aids, Jack is one of four mothers who have moved into a quiet part of the prison grounds that is a child-friendly oasis behind razor-wire topped walls.

Unlike the grim women's prison, where 518 women live in a space meant for 329, the inmates here share a former staff house where the bedroom doors are ordinary wood and the front door stands open during the day.

The women are free to move about, with a yard and a spacious grassy playground, and even get to cook their own food in an unusually liberal jail setting to allow as normal an environment as possible behind bars for a child.

“We are hoping that this will expose them to life that is close to normal but will also contribute in breaking the cycle of crime,” explained Nontsikelelo Jolingana, national chief deputy commissioner for development and care.

With the first years of a child's life the most important, babies growing up in cells are shaped by prison life and often traumatized on leaving.

“They haven't seen anything other than the four walls that they were kept in. Therefore even the mental development of the child becomes affected,” said Jolingana.

“So we thought that if we opened facilities of this nature, we are giving these children or these babies a chance, because our emphasis is that they have not committed a crime.”

Marlise Howell, an instructor with BabyGym, helps teach baby massage and motor skills which she also volunteered before the new unit opened last August.

'It feels like I'm at home'

“What we saw is that institutionalized babies' brain development is not on par with babies outside,” she said.

“Everything was up close, they couldn't develop their far vision properly there and they didn't get to experience different things inside and outside and even light changes — so basically an all round lack of sensory stimulation.”

For mothers serving long sentences, the reprieve is temporary as the children legally have to leave prison for foster care or relatives once they are two years old. The mothers will be sent back to serve out the rest of their term.

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Convicted shoplifter Rafieka Rajab, 26, plays with her 3-month-old daughter Ameerah on March 29, in South Africa's first dedicated unit to ensure that babies in lock up are not punished for their mothers' crimes at the notorious Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town.(AFP)

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