Separated at birth

To be born in prison is a misfortune, but to be taken from your mother soon after birth can be a disaster. Why are so many prisoners prevented from looking after their babies?
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Last night in Holloway jail Jane, a heavily pregnant prisoner, was locked in her cell, hoping that she would not go into labour. The north London prison is a frightening place at night for a woman carrying a child. Jane (not her real name) wonders whether the guards will respond to the buzzer in an emergency. Will they get help quickly enough when labour begins or if she starts to bleed? But her greatest fear is of the baby being taken away after birth and placed in foster care.

This is why Jane, serving a five-year sentence for wounding with intent, is in no hurry to deliver. Her baby daughter was due on Sunday, but she hopes to hold off for another week. As long as the child remains unborn, she is safe with her mother. But the 24-year-old former university student has been told that the girl will be taken from her soon after birth. This is particularly worrying because the child is believed to have a chromosomal defect and may need extra care after birth. The mother's only hope is a High Court appeal on 3 November.

Jane's case is being championed by Sheila Kitzinger, the author and childcare expert, who has pressed for the full legal hearing.

"She is very keen to breastfeed," says Ms Kitzinger. "I've put a book [on the subject] in the post because she may have to express milk in the hope that the court will allow mother and baby to be together later."

It sounds barbaric, a newborn child taken from a mother who wishes to keep it, deprived of breastfeeding and bonding. Yet the current case is just one of several recently in which women have been turned down for a place in a prison mother and baby unit. The results of sudden separation are inevitably traumatic. Some prisoners almost go mad.

The following quotes are taken from a letter written by another prisoner, Annette Hewins. In 1996, Mrs Hewins, 31, from Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales, handed her son Josh over to her husband Philip. Josh had been born just nine hours earlier in the ambulance on the way to hospital from prison.

She writes: "I can't take no more pain. They wouldn't do to a dog what they've done to me. Dogs keep their puppies with them... I get nightmares, always the same. I was running down the street with Josh in my arms and I could hear my kids crying for me, but I couldn't find them and then someone grabs Joshua from me and I'm screaming, trying to hold him. The next thing it all goes dark."

Earlier in the letter, Mrs Hewins describes the experience of separating from her baby, an experience that Jane in Holloway is now facing. "After he was born, the nurse wanted me to sleep. But how could I? I only had until six in the morning to be with my baby. I could sleep all I liked in prison. Now I just wanted every minute I could have with my baby.

"Six o'clock came all too quick. I dressed Josh all ready to go home. I had given Philip so many instructions as to how to feed him, what to do and what not to do. I picked Josh up and cuddled him tight. I said to the other children: 'This is your baby brother. I hope you are all going to look after him until mammy comes home.'" And then Mrs Hewins handed the baby over to her husband and her mother.

"I tried to be strong, not to make it any harder on Philip or my mother because, love them, they were the ones who had to take the baby from me and they were hurting enough already. I tried to hold back the tears. But I gave Josh to my mother and just fell into Philip's arms, sobbing."

By chance, she saw her family drive away from the hospital with the baby as a taxi stood waiting to return her to prison. "I felt like I was in a dream or some kind of trance. I'd carried my baby inside me for so long and we were really close. I'd spent ages in my cell talking to Josh, feeling him kicking. I had him to look after every day while I was in prison. All of a sudden I was really empty... I felt really weak and confused. I just felt, that's it. I've got nothing left. They've just taken away all I had, my baby. They shouldn't have done that, to either of us."

Mrs Hewins, who had three children under five when she was arrested in 1995, is serving a 13-year sentence for arson with intent to endanger life. Her case is coming up for appeal shortly. She was recently admitted with depression to a psychiatric hospital. It was recommended by her doctors that she see as much of her children as possible.

Mrs Hewins says she was persuaded to sign away any chance of keeping her son in prison after birth when she was on remand and she expected that she would have been acquitted by the time Josh was born. Additionally, the nearest mother and baby unit to her was so far away from her home that she would have lost contact with her other young children.

Most people imagine that such cases do not occur any more in prison, that new mothers and their babies are properly catered for. They recall the public outcry at the ruling of a Gloucestershire judge, in September 1997, who jailed a pregnant teenager for stealing four shirts and said that she should be separated from her child at birth. That ruling was quashed.

Public perceptions are accurate in part - there are units in British prisons which offer 68 places. But these are located in just four places. Remand prisons such as Risley, for example, have no facilities for women to keep their babies. And as Jane in Holloway knows, no mother has a right to a place.

The privilege of access to children is in the gift of the prison (fathers are banned from the units). You have to be drug-free, which excludes many women. "schedule one" offenders, people convicted of offences against children, are excluded. That seems a reasonable condition, but it produces anomalies. One 17-year-old girl was excluded because she had attacked a girl of the same age, making her, technically, a schedule-one offender. Behaviour of a prisoner towards staff is also an important factor, giving the prison considerable discretion.

A jail can withdraw permission at a moment's notice with little chance of redress. And, in any case, women can keep their babies in Holloway only until they are nine months old - 18 months if they are the very lucky ones who secure a transfer to Styal prison in Cheshire or Askham Grange near York. Some campaigners argue that in the last century, when some women kept their children with them until the age of four, prisons were more humane to children. In Little Dorrit Dickens describes the incarceration of a whole family including servants and children in the Marshalsea debtors' prison.

Angela Devlin, the author of Invisible Women (Waterside Press), a recent study of women in prison, reports that other countries have much more humane policies. In Spain and Portugal a child can stay in custody with its mother until aged five or six. In the US state of Nebraska an experimental centre allows children (boys up to nine and girls up to 12) to stay with their mothers in prison for up to five nights a week. The programme, called "Mother-offspring Life Development" is so oversubscribed that women are now three to a cell.

In the current Holloway case, Jane has been turned down because of what the authorities call "unpredictable behaviour", after allegations of bullying and rudeness to staff. Yet the women already in Holloway's mother and baby unit are said to be keen for this woman to be admitted. Those familiar with the system say it turns away women who are articulate and questioning.

Sheila Kitzinger argues: "If pregnant women are to be increasingly incarcerated, it is the responsibility of the Home Office to provide them with accommodation in small units with a garden. I don't think Holloway is suitable, even if the walls are painted pink."

Just over half of women prisoners have children under 18. For their children the consequences of incarceration are more serious than for those of men prisoners, because they often do not have a partner who can take on the parenting single-handed. So the children of female prisoners are much more likely to end up in care.

Vinnette's story is typical. Six weeks after giving birth to a son while on remand, Vinnette (not her real name) was convicted and sentenced to two years for smuggling 8lb of cannabis, worth pounds 18,000, through Heathrow airport. She had asked to keep the baby, Sean - and Maria, her 18-month- old daughter - with her.

"They said there was no space in the mother and baby unit," she says. "So both children were taken into care and handed over to foster parents. It was so distressing for Sean. He had only had breast milk. Maria was crying and crying, going to people that she did not know. When the foster parents brought them in, Sean looked drawn and tearful. But I was told off when I tried to breastfeed my baby."

Vinnette stops every few moments to control her emotions and then carries on. "My daughter had been a bouncy, bright little girl. But she would never talk to me on visits. She was sent to Great Ormond Street Hospital for therapy because she would not respond to anyone." Eventually, Vinnette was able to get the children removed from those foster parents. In a photograph of Sean in his cot she had noticed urine stains on the mattress. But by then Sean's milk teeth were rotten from being left with a bottle of fruit juice as a soother. The second set of foster parents were better, but brought the children into prison rarely and resisted her reclaiming them at the end of her sentence.

"I finally got Sean back when he was 16 months old. By then he was more attached to his foster mother. Even today, he says to me that I am not his real mother and he is very aggressive. My daughter is 13 and is still withdrawn. I have three more children now, but it's only the older two who have behavioural problems."

Such cases of women being turned down for a place in prison mother and baby units are not uncommon, according to Olga Heaven, the director of Hibiscus, a group that lobbies for the welfare of female prisoners. Often they do not even apply formally. "It was easy for them to say no to Vinnette, because they knew that she would not kick up a stink. If she had been a different kind of prisoner who could demand what she wanted then they would have thought twice about removing the baby." The greatest problems, says Ms Heaven, are with foreign nationals who are often jailed for drug offences.

"I remember one girl from Grand Cayman," she says, "who had her baby in prison and it was put into care. Then, after she had done three and a half years in prison, she was released, taken to the airport where she was reunited with the child and they were both deported. The child barely knew her and knew nothing of where they were going."

When you talk to the lobbyists, they will recount case after case of domestic tragedy springing from women being separated from their children while in prison. These domestic tragedies are the reason Jane will be fighting to keep her child when she goes to court on 3 November. And why she is hoping that she does not go into labour quite yet.