Leading Article: Prisons mustn't split mothers and children

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The Independent Culture
IF THERE is one image that has sustained its power through the ages, it is that of the mother and the newborn child. Yet today, in the High Court, the state will seek to destroy this intimate and crucial relationship between one particular mother and her daughter, who is just over a week old. The Prison Service will once again demand that a 24-year- old former student, currently in a north London hospital, should be separated from her baby until she has completed the last two years of her sentence. You might imagine that, to contemplate such a drastic step, the Prison Service has serious concerns about the suitability of this mother. You would be wrong. No one has claimed that she would make a bad parent. If she were free, there would be no question of her losing the baby. The problem is that the Prison Service has had difficulty handling the prisoner in the past. Officers fear that she will be disruptive if she is allowed to keep her child in Holloway's "mother and baby unit". In short, it is administratively simpler for the jail to separate them.

This child has committed no crime, nothing to warrant the trauma that awaits her if the Prison Service wins its case today. As for the mother, her punishment is meant to be her loss of freedom. Nothing she has done justifies the torture of having her child taken away.

Sadly, this case demonstrates that the Prison Service has learnt little since being forced by public outrage to abandon the practice of shackling pregnant women during labour. It has also failed to learn from other countries where women - and often men - with children are dealt with more humanely. Last week, Jack Straw publicly committed the Government to supporting family life. The Home Secretary's task now is urgent: to order an inquiry into how best to allow children as much access as possible to both their mothers and their fathers while the adults are serving their sentences.

But his first job - if the courts do not do it for him today - is simple. Find a place somewhere in the prison system where this mother and her newborn baby can at last enjoy some security.

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