Mother-Baby Units in Prisons

Mothers keeping their babies while in prison -a great idea? I have to admit that I hadn’t thought much about it until the Media publicized a case being considered by the British Columbia Supreme Court. A mother-baby program was cancelled at a regional institute in 2008 and the contention is that this not only violated an infant’s right to a mother’s care, but discriminated against the mother as well. There is also a Federal facility in the area however; it is still open, also offers a mother-baby program, and is theoretically available to those who meet the criteria.

This was not an across-the-board right for all female prisoners who were mothers, it must be noted; it was supposedly available only to those who were serving terms of less than two years, and was for those where it was judged the baby would not be at risk. The regional officials felt that there were safety concerns apparently.

Mother-baby programs in prisons are not new, and certainly not a uniquely Canadian compassionate innovation. In fact the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women (a maximum security prison in New York) first opened a prison nursery in 1901 and there are similar programs in other U.S. states as well as in Europe.

Although criteria for acceptance seem to vary depending on region -in some, for example, the woman has to be pregnant when sentenced, as opposed to already having a newborn child- many of the principles seem roughly similar: the baby is eligible to stay with the mother for a year to eighteen months (presumably because of some developmental data that suggest any benefits to the child that derive from being with the mother after that are offset by the detrimental effects of being in an institution); there must be no threat to the child either because of the mother or the surroundings; the mother is required to attend parenting classes of one sort or another; and she must be serving a relatively short sentence usually.

Of course after the eighteen months, if the mother is still in prison, the baby is then taken away -either to relatives, or foster care. In a way, this is a two edged sword, isn’t it? Bonding occurs and then it is severed with probable consequences for both parties. So what are we to conclude? Do the benefits of the close mothering outweigh the subsequent schism? Are there data that substantiate its worth?

What few studies I have been able to find seem conflicted on the effects of the units. The hope, of course, is that they will reduce the likelihood of the mother re-offending; that by showing understanding and compassion, she will be convinced to change the way she apprehends the world. Unfortunately the units do not improve the environment into which she will be released, nor alter the conditions that led to her crime in the first place. But we need to take one manageable step at a time. To be sure, many things need to change, but punishment per se rarely extinguishes a behaviour as quickly as reward. For that matter, allowing a new mother to stay with her baby is not a reward, it is what a just and empathetic society should facilitate! We are what we do.

Most centers are adamant that the process exists not so much for the mothers as for the babies who, as Mark Thompson, governor of the Eastwood Park Unit (one of 8 units in the 13 women’s jails in the UK) says “Have not done anything wrong and who deserve to have a good start in life.” In that unit at least, women are taught parenting skills; they’re taught how to cook; they’re supported in breast (or bottle) feeding, shown how to change diapers and sterilize bottles and even how to play with their babies…

Clearly the opportunity to learn many of these skills might not have been accessed had they not been in prison. And yet, balance that with the thought that a prison might not be able to offer other things for the baby that are necessary for it’s development. The Prison Service leaflet from that same British unit advises the mother “Your baby will miss having contact with normal daily life, such as family, traffic, shops, parks and animals.” Socialization, in other words. This is mentioned, even though in that unit the staff apparently take the babies out to parks and supermarkets, etc. as an attempt to normalize things. Wow!

I suppose my interest in this -apart from being an obstetrician and a father- is in examining what we hope to accomplish in our penal system. Is the aim of incarceration merely Retributive Justice -revenge by another name? In other words, the woman committed a crime and doesn’t deserve to have her baby with her! (There are letters and online comments to that effect.) Is it public safety -keeping them off the streets (out of sight, out of mind)? And if the latter, one has to wonder why anyone would be jailed for a victimless crime like, say, a drug offense, or petty theft. If it is a non-violent offense, is the right place for them really behind bars? And for that matter, what about all the so called ‘white-collar crimes” that are clogging the cells? Surely there are other, better uses for the public purse.

I have always treasured the notion that where incarceration is necessary, rather than hardening the inmates against whatever system put them there and teaching them how to avoid getting caught the next time, it would incorporate some attempt at rehabilitation: education, retraining, and re-motivating. Teaching normal and acceptable life-skills to a captive audience would seem to be an obvious benefit not only to them but to society at large -an obvious opportunity.

And I don’t think I’m being unduly naïve in intuiting that being able to keep their babies with them must be a highly motivating factor for most mothers. Motivating and humane. To waste an opportunity that might potentially benefit everybody -mother, baby, and society- is in itself a crime.

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