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Saturday, April 14, 2018

A visit with Baby Shirley's mom in the mens prison

Earlier this week three of us went to visit Baby Shirley's mother in prison. I will call her "T" for this post.   Baby Shirley is the child who was dumped in a pit latrine as a newborn and then had hot coals dumped in on top of her to make sure she would die. She did not.  You can read her story at

T was in the Mawelawela Woman's prison for two years and was then moved to a Men's prison 1.5 years ago where there is one room for 10 women within the prison. This is like a “holding” room for women ready to go to trial because the prison is closer to the courts than the Woman’s prison.  For 18-months she has been waiting for her case to get to get called.

A few months ago she started calling me every week to say hello, ask how Shirley was doing and generally have some contact with the outside world.  She asked repeatedly for me to visit, and I finally did.  I feel such empathy for this young woman because not only is she living with the guilt of trying to kill her own child, AND she has a severely disabled child (her second born, born with Cerebral Palsy) in prison with her. The child, whom she calls Rebecca, is now 5.5-years-old, can’t sit, walk, speak or communicate in any way, but she is living in the men’s prison with her mother and nine other women. Her firstborn child died from malnutrition. 

We arrived at the prison and were told to take off our jewelry and watches and to leave our cell phones and all other things in the car. We went in with only our ID cards and a note from the front guard saying that we could visit for ten minutes. We went through the big steel doors, with no windows and were greeted by a social worker and a guard who took us to a private office to meet with T. They were very kind and empathetic, and I think wondered who might be these first visitors for this sad inmate.

T was so happy to see us and she sat with Rebecca on her lap and asked us how Shirley was doing and told us how much she missed her baby. I struggled with that a bit since she was the very person who was responsible for the permanent scaring on Shirley’s face and her not having a big toe on one foot or an index finger on one hand.

We asked when she thought she would go to trial and she had no idea. It was a waiting game. My friend Janice asked her if she had a lawyer or if the court would appoint one?  They all shook their heads, no. The court only appoints a lawyer if it’s a serious crime. 

Wait, what?

This young girl is charged with attempted murder, and that’s not a serious crime?

Nope, if she had actually committed the murder, she would have a lawyer.

We asked if there was a time she might have been given bail, rather than keeping her in prison for so long with a disabled child.  T told us that when she first went to prison Baby Shirley’s biological father's family gave E3000 ($300 US) to T’s sister so that she could be bailed out of jail (3.5 years ago).  The sister spent the money on herself, and T stayed in prison.

The family is broken and her parents are so angry at her. She knows that when she is released from prison that she will return to a home filled with conflict, anger and shame. What will she do for food? It’s very hard to find a job and she is the only who can manage and care for Rebecca, who is growing every day. She is afraid and she is hopeless.

Where does T find hope?  I reminded her that God’s plans are not our plans and that maybe He has them both in prison as a place of safety? Seems strange to say, but she is provided with food, shelter and a clean place to sleep.  But that's easy for me to say when I get to walk back out through the gates and get in my car to drive home.

I am conflicted because I feel such empathy for the young woman, but then I am responsible for the child who was hurt, and whose heart and mind are still healing.  T is desperate to come and visit Shirley when she gets out, but I don’t know how that will work or what will be said. I am thankful to have our wonderful social worker, Margie Brewer, here to help us navigate that when the time comes.

A photo of T and Baby Shirley the day we first met in prison.
Some days are easier than others here.  Some days I can solve other people's problems, but that day was not one of them.

Live from Swaziland … going to play with Shirley today.


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