Mothers behind bars

Painful labour, sleepless nights and a screaming baby are all
frightening prospects for any mother-to-be. Many parents describe
with hindsight how they struggled to cope, even with a supportive
partner, family and friends to hand. So the odds are really stacked
against mothers who look after their infants in prison.

The issue of mothers in prison is an emotive one and there are two
distinct schools of thought. Many believe that prison is no place
for a mother – whether their child is with them or not – whatever
the nature of their offence while others argue that for more
serious and violent offences it would be unrealistic to allow
mothers any special treatment.

Mothers themselves face a dilemma when deciding whether to keep
their baby with them. Research and work with mothers by the Prison
Reform Trust (PRT) reveals that many feel guilty if their baby is
in prison with them, but equally guilty if the child isn’t with
them and they don’t know what is happening on a day-to-day

The PRT would like to see alternatives to custody, such as smaller
units in the community rather than inside prison grounds, and
community penalties, for example, detention and training orders. A
mother in prison with her baby has a “double impact”, says Joanne
Sherlock, young parents in prison project manager at the PRT. “It’s
like the child is being punished as well.” The three-year project –
due to end in July – is for all young parents up to the age of 25.
Its aim is two-pronged: to raise awareness of the issues and
campaign for better services, and to carry out research on the
educational courses available to young parents in prison and the
support and the services they would like.

There are 17 women’s prisons in England, five with a mother and
baby unit attached. They are Holloway, north London; Styal,
Wilmslow in Cheshire; New Hall, Wakefield, West Yorkshire; Askham
Grange, York; and Eastwood Park, Wotton-under-Edge,
Gloucestershire. Children can stay up to nine months in some and 18
months in others. All women’s prisons have a mother and baby
liaison officer. Pregnant women – and those who have a baby under
18 months – are told about the five units, and can apply for a

Pregnant women tend to go on a normal wing first, although Holloway
has a wing specifically for expectant mothers, and are transferred
to a unit once they have had the baby. Although they are entitled
to the same health support as they would be if they were pregnant
in the community, this is not always the reality, says Sherlock.
“Their contact with health visitors, for example, can vary
greatly.” Other needs may also be overlooked. “They may want to eat
more food, but are given the same as everyone else, or they may not
be given extra cushions for comfort,” she adds.

If they want to keep their baby with them, their application goes
to the admission board. This multi-disciplinary team has an
independent chair, quite often a former social services director or
social worker, and members include representatives from probation,
local social services, a nursery nurse and someone from the unit to
ensure that admittance would be in the child’s best

Women are assessed on a case by case basis. They have to promise to
be drug-free and to behave, says Nick Montgomery-Pott,
communications manager for the prison service’s women team, with
responsibility for mother and baby units. “They are a pre-selected
group who we think are capable of looking after their child and
aren’t going to present a risk to others in the unit. We try to
make sure we don’t take on problems knowingly.”

In the units mothers don’t have to share cells, instead they have
individual rooms with cots and, unlike other prisoners, their doors
are never locked. Although units are more relaxed and quieter than
prisons, mothers are still subject to normal prison disciplines.
CrŠches are on hand so that mothers can benefit from education
and skills training, address their offending behaviour, for
example, through anger management, or work in the community while
they are being prepared for release.

While prison staff in the units have additional training in child
protection and attend a three-day mother and baby course, mothers
are responsible for the day-to-day care of their children. Prison
staff volunteer to work in the units, and though they are
predominantly women, “we try to make sure there are some male staff
in the creches or in the units as it’s important for the children
to have some male figures around”, says Montgomery-Pott.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of imprisoning mothers, the maximum
time limit of 18 months means separation from their babies is
inevitable for many mothers. To prepare for this, every mother must
agree a separation plan within weeks of being accepted into a

“The information we have from professionals is that, where there’s
a long sentence and it’s in the child’s best interests, we will try
to separate in the first six months or so. That allows the mother
to bond a bit and then the child can bond with an alternative
carer,” says Montgomery-Pott.

Separation boards made up of an independent chair, local social
services, the mother and the future carer if possible, meet to work
out a gradual process of separation so that the child can go out
for a weekend and then a week until they feel comfortable with the
new carer, usually a relative.

The debate about mothers and babies in prison shows no sign of
abating. While we often turn to other countries to see if their
policies would work here, it’s unlikely we will follow the Russian
model.1 There, mothers of children under 14 convicted of
all but the most serious crimes are routinely given suspended
sentences until their child is 14. In Germany, however, women are
housed under curfew with their children in units attached to a
prison but outside its gates.

Montgomery-Pott is in no doubt that a better option for some
mothers would be community-based alternatives to custody. But, he
adds: “I don’t have the luxury of wishing things were different. I
am given the sentence by court and we do the best with that, in
co-operation with social services. There’s a limit to what we can
do in the prison service – we are a prison.”

1 Commission on Women and
the Criminal Justice System, “Interim Report on Women and
, Fawcett Society, 2003

Key facts

On 10 March 2003 there were 31 babies under nine months and 19
babies under 18 months in prisons in England and Wales.

  • There are 17 women’s prisons in the England.
  • Five mother and baby units in Holloway (17 places), Styal (22
    places), New Hall (9 places), Askham Grange (30 places) and
    Eastwood Park (12 places).
  • A new mixed prison at Peterborough is due to open soon with a
    mother and baby unit for 12. A new women’s prison with a mother and
    baby unit will open near Heathrow with 12 places in June.
  • The Youth Justice Board plans to build some small units
    attached to local authority secure units for juvenile mothers and
    their babies, but in the meantime it provides additional resources
    to the prison service in cases where juveniles are placed in mother
    and baby units.   

‘I couldn’t imagine handing her over to

A 19-year-old mother at Askham Grange describes how she feels
being in prison with her one-year-old baby:  “When you are pregnant
in prison you still have to fit in with the rules. It was very hot
when I was carrying the baby and all I wanted was a cold shower,
but I had to fit in with association times. 

“I think I will have more kids. I want to, but not like this.
I’m lucky because I’ll be out before she’s 18 months. I couldn’t
imagine handing her over to someone. I would only let her go to my
mam, but once social workers get involved and probation have their
say, I don’t know what would happen.  

“It doesn’t feel real having a baby in prison. It’s not right.
There should be something else the government could do, our
children haven’t done anything wrong.  

“I don’t think we can tell probation or social services how we
really feel in case they take my daughter from me. Then if I don’t
say anything they still think you’re not doing things properly. You
can’t win. I do worry I will lose my baby in case I’m not doing
things right, or people think I’m a crap mother.  

“If there was a place between prison and home – but not a hostel
– somewhere where people could help and teach you real things so
you can live and not have your baby taken away. It might help stop
girls doing drugs or stealing or whatever. Somewhere that was
clean, and like a home. I would like that.”

Baby development on the inside   

Holloway’s mother and baby unit is currently piloting a project
run by the Anna Freud Centre, a charity providing psychotherapeutic
interventions for children and families, and voluntary organisation
New Bridge which works with offenders. The project will be
evaluated and the intention is to extend it to all units in

The project aims to improve mothers’ parenting skills by helping
them understand their babies’ emotional and developmental needs. It
also helps them prepare for separation. Seven mothers attended the
first course, comprising eight sessions over four weeks.  

“The time in prison overlaps with the earliest months of a
baby’s development and is a critical period,” says Tessa Baradon,
manager and lead clinician of the parent infant project at the Anna
Freud Centre. “We know that if you can help prepare someone for a
separation there’s a better chance that there won’t be unresolved
issues afterwards.” 

Baradon says that there is no “good” time to separate a mother
and her baby. But she says some times are better than others,
depending on several factors which will be different for each
individual. For example, between four to six months and then eight
to nine months are important periods in the attachment process.
Other factors to take into account are the age the child will be
when reunited with its mother and who the alternate carer will

 “Policy-makers are in a difficult situation with balancing
babies’ development and rehabilitating mothers, with the public
desire for justice and the wish to incarcerate people who break the
law,” says Baradon.

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