Real Living: And the baby gets six months

When prison separates mother and child, nobody wins. The dilemma is how to punish one and not the other, says Hester Lacey

Maria Brown's baby daughter was born in Holloway women's prison in north London, in May of last year. It was a traumatic birth; Maria's labour progressed so quickly that there was no time to get her to hospital, and in the time it took for medical help to arrive, she had given birth within the confines of the prison itself.

This was a difficult start, and trying to bring up a baby in prison is not a pleasant experience, but Maria was prepared to make the best of things. Her social worker noted that her attitude was "polite and co- operative", that she was "very quiet" and that she spent her spare time sewing for herself and her baby. Her daughter was described as "a happy, healthy little baby" who was "thriving and reaching all the usual milestones".

In October last year, Maria quarrelled with another prisoner and slapped her. Prison officers then said they had found drugs in her cell. Although these later turned out to be what Maria had claimed - a common cold remedy - her baby daughter was taken away and sent to live with her family. Maria was plunged into depression; she could hardly get out of bed in the mornings. In a statement she wrote: "I want my baby back ... My baby should be with me."

Maria's mother Helen's cosy living room in south London is decorated with photos of her two granddaughters. They are beautiful children, and in the photographs they are smiling broadly. Now, however, Helen is about to take her older granddaughter, aged six, to see a psychiatrist to tackle her behavioural problems. The effect on both children has been terrible, she says. "The older one misses her mother so much. Even the little baby is depressed. You can tell she is missing her mother too."

Maria, now 27, was sentenced to four years in prison for GBH with intent; she will be eligible for parole after two years. She threw boiling water over a man who was pestering and insulting her. It was her first offence. Understandably, her mother can hardly believe that the incident happened. "It was not like her. She liked school and did well, she loved reading and cooking, she was a bubbly girl. And she was a hard-working girl, she had a good job, she worked for the council."

Maria decided to fight. A hearing last week ruled that Maria's baby should finally be returned to her - three full months after she was taken away. But that won't be the end of the story. No British prison has facilities to allow mothers and children to stay together after the child reaches the age of 18 months. Maria is now desperately worried about what will happen in 10 months' time, when her baby reaches the age limit. Her mother and partner both work and can't care full-time for a small child. And the only two British prisons where she could keep her baby until she is 18 months old are miles away from home and from her six-year-old daughter, whom she sees rarely as it is.

Facilities for dealing with women and babies in prison in Britain are hardly exemplary. There are more than 3,000 women in prison in Britain, and 61 per cent of those have children under 18 or are pregnant. But there are only 64 places available nationwide in mother and baby units, and a place is by no means guaranteed to women who have babies in prison; applications are dealt with by an admissions board that has the power to refuse a place if a prisoner's behaviour and attitude are not deemed appropriate. The criteria can seem arbitrary and are not necessarily connected to any deficiency in mothering skills: women may be considered unsuitable if, for example, they talk back to prison officers or get into conflict with other prisoners. This may mean that the baby is put into care.

The effects of such early separations are a source of great concern. Helena Kennedy QC was approached in the early stages of Maria's case and would have been happy to represent her, though when the dates were eventually set for the trial she was unavailable. "Whatever the mother has done, we should avoid passing this on to the children," says Ms Kennedy. "The early experience of bonding between mother and child is so important. In a civilised society, we should do everything possible to keep mother and baby together."

In another recent case at Holloway, a young woman who was told that her baby would be taken away at birth decided to challenge the decision. A first appeal was unsuccessful, but after the second, she was reunited with her child. Maria's solicitor Nicholas Adams, who acted for the woman, says, "The judges were very unimpressed with the admissions board procedure. It was woefully inadequate. The board had dealt with her in a very informal way. We argued that in a situation of such importance, the matters against the mother should be properly laid out and she should have the chance to answer them and be allowed legal representation at the hearing. In our opinion, the board met to agree what they had already decided."

The judge at the appeal made his dissatisfaction clear, and the admissions board was reconvened. This time it found in her favour, and the judge made clear that in his opinion, the rights of the child should have primary consideration. But because the case was settled by compromise between the two parties, it does not stand as a legally binding test case.

When Maria appealed to the admissions board to be readmitted to the mother and baby unit and be given back her baby, Holloway refused to disclose documents to her solicitor and did not allow her to be legally represented. And despite her distress, there was no attempt, according to her solicitor, to hurry matters along.

"The appeal board met on 7 January to discuss her case, and immediately adjourned for two weeks because there was a question about the whereabouts of the baby," says Nicholas Adams. "Maria's account of where the baby was living was entirely accurate and it would only have taken a phone call to check it. As it was, when the board reconvened two weeks later, it took them all of three minutes to approve her application."

A spokesman for the prison services said they could not comment on individual cases. He added that once a person was in a mother and baby unit, she could be removed if her general behaviour made it impossible to stay on the unit, if she failed to care adequately for her baby, or failed to fulfil the terms of her admission to the unit. "In most cases, except for extreme forms of behaviour, the mother would initially be given a warning, unless the governor deemed her a threat to other mothers and babies or to her own baby."

It is possible that the situation for women like Maria will improve. As a direct result of the case where the baby was to be taken from her mother at birth, the then governor of Holloway resigned, and the director- general of the prison service, Richard Tilt, announced a review of procedure. This inquiry will give its findings in March. Campaigners for reform believe this may be an opportunity for a complete overhaul. The Howard League for Penal Reform will be sending a written submission to the inquiry board.

"The inquiry is looking at policy and procedure, but in our view they have got to go further," says the Howard League's Anita Dockley. "We are suggesting that more radical ideas would be in the interest of the babies. We would like to see all existing mother and baby units closed down, and a new system set up in the community." The Howard League envisages small units, with differing levels of security and supervision depending on the mother's offence. They would like to see these over a wide geographical spread, so that mothers like Maria won't be placed miles from older children.

Anita Dockley cites a similar scheme in Sydney, where a decision was made 10 years ago not to have babies in prisons. "The mothers are given prison sentences to mark the gravity of their offences, but they are licensed to go to external units which are controlled by the courts." She says there are already units in British communities housing mothers and babies who need extra support. "These hostels have systems like signing in and signing out, help with parenting, treatment for drug problems."

Birth sociologist Sheila Kitzinger will also be making a submission to the enquiry board. "The important thing is to know how one can create a positive environment for pregnancy, birth and beyond," she says. "It is important to help the mothers develop new skills. After prison, they have often lost their homes, relationships and jobs. We have to think about how they can reconstruct their lives." Like the Howard League, she believes prison is completely inappropriate for mothers with small children. "It is no good painting the walls pink and having lots of mobiles and toys. Environment is all about the relationships between people. A prison remains a prison."

She also favours accommodation in semi-secure hostels. In some countries, she points out, open prisons or hostels are the norm. "There is one prison in Holland, in a forest, where the mothers say their children don't even know it is a prison." And, she says, in hostels children would not have to be separated from their mothers at 18 months old. "The attachment between mother and child is very strong - it's the time when the child clings to your leg and won't let go." She believes children should be with their mothers at least until school age. "Then, women should be in hostels near their children," she says. She adds that separating children from their mothers guarantees an ugly legacy. "It is simply laying up more trouble. It couldn't be better designed to turn out young people who are bitter, who feel unloved, who have no security in their backgrounds."

In the early Nineties, the Howard League carried out research among children aged between four and 20 whose mothers were in prison. They found desperate unhappiness. Some children were getting into playground fights defending their mothers; others were being bullied. One particular four-year-old sticks in Anita Dockley's memory.

"This child simply said, `I just want my mummy to tuck me into bed at night'," she says. "We are damaging these children. Except in the gravest circumstances, we do not believe babies should ever be separated from their mothers."

Some names have been changed.

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