Having a prisoner for a mother may not be a baby’s best start in life but the mother and baby unit at Styal Prison offers quality parent support. Camilla Pemberton reports
People often remark, ‘those poor babies being in prison’, but actually I think they’re lucky,” says Karen Moorcroft, manager of Action for Children’s mother and baby support unit at HMP Styal. Although Moorcroft knows prison is no place for a baby, she insists the self-contained unit provides them with a “really supportive home from home”.
“When people come here they can’t believe we’re attached to a prison because it’s so quiet and calm. It’s full of colour, plants and light and we have paintings and prints all over the walls. It’s designed to be baby-friendly and child-focused,” she says.
“Their mothers might have broken the law, but these babies are not prisoners and will never be treated as such. They are given the same opportunities as babies and families on the outside, which means a level of support some mothers may not have been able to use in the community.”
The unit, which Moorcroft has run since it opened in 2006, provides a 24-hour, 365 day service to mothers and babies and is staffed by qualified childcare professionals. They bring a variety of skills and experience to the unit – from early years to looked-after children and family support.
An early years specialist, Moorcroft is the only member of the team who has worked in prisons before, having spent five years working with the visiting children of adult male offenders.
Moorcroft’s 10-strong team includes child protection social workers, although she is adamant that she is not running a child protection unit. “Mothers and babies sleep in the same room but are only closely monitored in terms of support, not in terms of surveillance,” she says.
“We have to be confident that mothers are able to safeguard their children or a place on the unit will not be in the child’s best interests,” she adds.
“We help mothers to develop strong attachments and parenting skills through a comfortable and nurturing environment. They retain parental responsibility at all times and, in return, they must demonstrate exceptional behaviour towards staff and towards their child.”
Each mother is allocated a case worker from Action for Children, who helps her build self-confidence and parenting skills. “Prison is, of course, disempowering by its very nature,” Moorcroft says, “but we try to empower and enable women to be good parents. We see them as women and mothers rather than prisoners and they view us as support figures rather than disciplinarians.”
When babies are old enough – at eight weeks – they attend morning nursery while their mothers work in the prison or complete courses to address their offending behaviour. The nursery, run by qualified nursery staff, was recently rated as outstanding by Ofsted.
Mothers return at lunchtime to feed and change their babies before spending the afternoon in parenting classes, learning a range of skills from cooking and budgeting to play techniques and baby massage. They can also shop for their babies in the prison’s baby shop, using money they’ve earned from working in the prison.
To ensure babies’ experiences are as normal as possible, they are taken out of the prison two to three times a week, something Moorcroft says their mothers are very supportive of. “We don’t want them to be restricted because their mother is in prison. We take them on trips, such as to local children’s centres, where they can have normal play experiences.”
“Things like Play-Doh and plasticine aren’t allowed in prison because they could be used to make imprints of locks and keys. Other security risks include glue and metal cutlery, but babies should have access to these different sensory experiences.”
Moorcroft is extremely proud of her “passionate, committed” team and the vast majority of women who come to the unit leave crime behind. Of the 50 women who have come through the unit since its creation, only six have returned.
With such a record of success, Moorcroft has reason to be confident of the unit’s future, which is secured until at least 2012. “The Ministry of Justice has always been supportive of our work and recognises the importance of mother and baby units. I believe the department will continue to support us, despite public sector cuts and new ministerial priorities. I don’t envisage any break in service or shift in focus.”
HMP styal mother and baby unit
● Works with mothers aged 18 years and above and babies aged 18 months and under.
● The unit provides nine of the 70 places available nationally to female offenders with children.
● Winner of a prestigious Butler Trust award for excellence in work with female offenders.
This article is published in the 17 June issue of Community Care magazine under the heading ” I think the babies are lucky”