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Rehab for South Africa’s female inmates focuses on domestic chores – instead of finding good work

A woman in prison overalls sits behind bars with her head down.
Patriarchal norms influence the design of rehabilitation programmes for women in jail. Shutterstock

Corrections facilities are supposed to help rehabilitate offenders. However, during apartheid, South Africa’s correctional system was a pillar of the repressive, discriminatory laws. It was used to punish those – mainly the black majority – perceived to be a threat to the white minority regime.

Present day correctional services in South Africa remain patriarchal and discriminatory. They disadvantage women by limiting their rehabilitation programmes to mostly domestic skills. In contrast, male offenders have a richer array of skills programmes to choose from. This increases their chances of being gainfully employed or self-employed, lessening their chances of re-offending.

There are 143,223 convicted prisoners in South Africa, of which 3,724 are women. Yet the idea of women in corrections continues to be a taboo subject. Because of the persisting patriarchal idea of women as nurturers, carers and homemakers, their mere presence in correctional facilities is considered to go against what society expects them to be.

Such beliefs contribute to how women are treated within correctional services and which rehabilitation programmes are deemed appropriate for them.

As psychology scholars, we set out to explore the rehabilitation experiences of women offenders in one of South Africa’s correctional centres for women classified as maximum security offenders. We interviewed 18 women at the Johannesburg Correctional Centre.

Read more: Two smart ways to help curb reoffending in South Africa's prisons

Our findings indicate the need for culture and gender sensitive offender rehabilitation programmes and processes. They also highlight the role the women play in reshaping their identities.

Enforcing women’s domestication

Correctional services rehabilitation programmes aim to reduce offenders’ risk of reoffending (recidivism). They also seek to enhance the chances of successful community reintegration upon release. This is only possible if such programmes take seriously women’s needs, histories, cultures and overall worldviews. We found this was not the case.

For example, the women we surveyed highlighted the imposition of Bible reading sessions whether they were Christian or not.

Also, in order to restore the “traditional good woman narrative” – being a good mother and a good wife – correctional centres enforce domestication. Most of the rehabilitation programmes and processes for women tend to be centred on home life. Women are expected to do beadwork, knitting, sewing and laundry and to take care of the sick.

Giving incarcerated women less exposure to non-traditional vocational training, such as entrepreneurship and digital skills, limits their prospects in the job market and business upon their release. This raises their prospects of reoffending.

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Those who try to defy these prescripts by accessing formal education through correspondence say they have to fight to overcome barriers. These include limited access to computers and a conducive learning environment (single cells instead of communal cells). A participant in one of our studies indicated that women sometimes resort to court action to claim their right to education:

We just struggle to have every little thing … We had to go to courts … We had to do motions just to make sure that we had laptop in our cells … I understand, they say the policy doesn’t allow that, but I mean education cannot be curtailed by anything, not even incarceration, it’s a right for me to study.

Incarcerated women continue to be stigmatised and judged by the justice system and society at large for breaking the law, and the moral standards of what it means to be a good woman and a good mother.

As a result, some of the women also look at rehabilitation processes as an opportunity for restoring their moral status as a good mother.

‘Bad mothers’

Our findings also showed that the incarcerated women experienced an internalised “bad mother” narrative. In trying to circumvent this, one of the participants pointed to good behaviour and studying with a view to restoring her motherhood status:

Now if you doing … something better … then you are also sending a message to your kids because they will say okay at least mommy is studying. Even when you reprimand them when you say Lucy (pseudonym) do not do this then she will realise that okay mummy is a better person.

Correctional facilities mimic society

Our study shows how the vocational activities for incarcerated women in South Africa are in line with what a patriarchal society demands. While it may be argued that the women are being equipped with skills they can use upon their release to earn an honest living, their relegation to such domestic activities as sewing and beading needs to be challenged.

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While the odds of securing a “decent job” are reduced for many offenders, it doesn’t justify the relegation of women into stereotypical and gendered rehabilitative practices. We therefore argue that all incarcerated women should be more exposed to non-traditional vocational training which broadens their options beyond the job market into entrepreneurship post-incarceration. This is particularly important in view of women’s much more nuanced pathways to crime, with economic marginalisation as one of the factors, especially in the South African context.

Rehabilitation experiences for women offenders should include programmes that empower them financially, such as entrepreneurship and technical skills, including computer literacy. They must be equipped with skills that will contribute to lessening re-offending.

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