Babies behind bars

Proposals to allow mothers to keep babies with them in prison
for longer have been criticised by prison reform groups. Anabel
Unity Sale looks at the evidence.

High up on the roof of Larkhall prison Zandra Plackett stood
clutching her newborn baby and threatening to jump.

She was distraught after her ex-boyfriend Robin told her he
wanted sole custody of their son Robbie. Prison governor Helen
Stewart, who had climbed up next to Plackett, eventually managed to
talk her down after promising to help her try and keep Robbie.

Okay, I admit it. This dramatic incident took place on Carlton
Television’s Bad Girls. But, all jokes about wobbly sets
aside, the programme has seriously raised the profile of mothers
and babies in prison.

England has 13 female-only prisons, housing 3,032 adult women
and 470 young female offenders. There are mother and baby units
located at Askham Grange, Holloway, Newhall and Styal. Of the 64
places available across the four units, 59 are currently taken.

Plans are in place to build two new units at Eastwood Park and
East Sutton Park prisons and a further two at two new-build
prisons. The units, which will not be operational before 2003-4,
will almost double the provision available to female prisoners with

The last published report into facilities at the existing units
appeared in January 1997. The inspection was conducted by a
multi-disciplinary team from the Department of Health, in
conjunction with the Social Services Inspectorate.

The duty to inspect the mother and baby units was transferred
back to the Prison Inspectorate, part of the Home Office, in 1998
as part of an overall review of prison services.

But how can the Prison Inspectorate match the standards of
inspection the Department of Health followed when looking at the
needs of babies in the units? After all, isn’t it more used to
measuring the size of cells rather than analysing the standards of
care for babies?

The Prison Inspectorate is adamant that the quality of service
provided to babies in prison will not deteriorate as a result of
reviews. A Prison Inspectorate spokesperson says: “We always
involve the Social Services Inspectorate and use standards that the
Department of Health has established for the treatment of mothers
and babies in mother and baby units.”

She adds: “We would never do any inspection of a unit without a
qualified social services inspector attending.”

For Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal
Reform, it is irrelevant who inspects the prison units because she
believes mothers and their babies should not be held in them at

She explains: “It doesn’t matter who is inspecting the units
because the standards are never going to be correct. Kids in the
units are not receiving the same standard of care they would
receive if they were at home. The standards of care in a prison are
way below that of anywhere else.”

Crook wants all mother and baby units to be closed down and says
that if, in extreme circumstances, a mother has been convicted of a
serious and violent crime she should then be held with her baby in
a special unit outside of a prison environment.

In a mother and baby unit babies stay with their mothers until
they are nine or 18 months old. After that they are taken away from
their mother and placed in the care of social services or another
family member.

Aware of the negative impact this can have on prisoners and
their babies, last summer HM Prison Service director general Martin
Narey agreed to look at keeping babies in prison until they are
four. In September, a detailed feasibility study started into
operating such a pilot scheme with Askham Grange which is hot
favourite to run it.

Each prisoner in a mother and baby unit has an assigned
multi-disciplinary team, which may include a probation officer, a
liaison social worker and other specialists, to meet their needs
and those of their babies. A Prison Service spokesperson explains:
“Mothers on the unit will receive the same professional healthcare
as a mother in the outside community.”

So what is life really like in a unit? Do prisoners swan around
chatting about Tweenies? Not at all, says Tony Ellis, Newhall
prison and young offenders institution head of operations.

Newhall’s mother and baby unit has eight unlocked single rooms
for mothers with one baby, and one room for a mother with twins.
Babies stay in the unit, which houses an average of six at a time,
until they are nine months old.

Prisoners in the unit get up at 7:45am with their babies and
have breakfast. At 8:30am they start work as machinists or take
classes in parenting skills, hairdressing, information technology,
business administration or health and social skills. Some prisoners
may also attend offending behaviour programmes as part of their
custody plan. During this time their babies are looked after in the
unit by a small team of staff, including two qualified nursery
nurses, which works between 7:30am and 8:30pm.

Ellis explains: “The policy in creating the work ethic among the
mums is so they don’t become housebound with their child once they
have been released. It is important that babies don’t become
dependent on them and the former prisoners can lead a normal life,
like other mums who go to work.”

Prisoners have a two-hour lunch break while they look after
their babies and start work or classes again at 1:45pm. At 5:15pm
they have dinner and spend the rest of the evening with their
babies before they all go to their rooms at 8pm.

Ellis argues this approach helps create a normal life for the
babies who “are not the prisoners”. It is also one of the reasons
why both male and female staff work in the unit. He says: “It is
important both genders are represented. It works well because it is
more normal for babies to hear male voices from an early age.”

Ellis is not in favour of increasing the age of babies in
prison. He explains: “I am happy for babies to stay for up to 18
months, but after then they start realising where they are. Anyone
who has had children will know that they are little people at two.
I wouldn’t want them to remember being in prison because it could
have a damaging effect later on in life.”

Jackie Lowthian, prison development manager at prisoner
resettlement charity Nacro, believes extending babies’ stay in
prison would be “an alarming development because there is an issue
about having children in prison at all”.

She says: “Separation of mother and baby at 18 months can be
traumatic, but you have to weigh that against the
institutionalising of the child.”

Lowthian adds that if there is concern over the separation of
mother and child then alternative methods of custody for the woman
should be investigated.

She explains: “There must be a response to find offenders
support that keeps them out of prison custody and in the

Judy Wenban-Smith, a chartered forensic psychologist
specialising in family relationships, believes extending the age of
babies in prison could work. But only in the right

She says: “The advantage is that you keep the mother and baby
together and there is a continuity of relationship and attachment,
but it would have to be in a very open prison environment. An older
child could be quite damaged by contact with disturbed

The SSI report, which was the result of three inspections of the
units, found that although the units had previously made
improvements they had not always been sustained.

The reasons it identified for this included “conflicting
priorities… between the needs of children and the needs of
increased security or between the needs of children and the
perceived needs of their mothers” and “conflicting goals… between
encouraging women to be mothers and treating them as prisoners
serving a sentence”.

It recommended that child care plans for babies in the units be
co-ordinated with the mother’s sentence plan. It also suggested:
“Mother and baby units have an adequate budget to provide for
stimulating and culturally appropriate activities for babies in the

In order to avoid fictional situations like Zandra Plackett’s
becoming a reality, pressure is growing on the Prison Service to
come up with a system for keeping mothers and their babies together
in an appropriate environment. Whatever results, it must have the
support of the mothers themselves, prison staff and other related
professionals. And top of the list must come the needs of the

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