New life behind bars

A judge labelled Keli McClay `evil and malicious' before sending her to prison for stabbing a woman. Should she be punished twice by having her baby taken from her? At Askham Grange, they don't think so. By Emma Daly
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Pregnancy in prison conjures up images of extremely hard labour; of women giving birth in chains. Roisin McAliskey, the pregnant IRA suspect who is on remand in Holloway prison, might have been subjected to such a regime had she not complained of harsh treatment. She was eventually told that she could give birth without shackles, and she has now been offered a place in the prison's mother and baby unit.

At Askham Grange, the Victorian institution featured in Witness: Babies Behind Bars, a Channel 4 documentary being shown this evening, they take a rather more modern approach: female prisoners and their babies are routinely lodged together in a mother and baby unit in an attempt to encourage the emotional survival of both parent and child.

The open prison near York looks rather like a boarding school, and the atmosphere is not dissimilar: institutional furniture, small beds, and walls papered with snapshots. The only bars are on the wrought-iron gate and each prisoner holds a key to her room. It is a better environment - warmer, safer - than some of the women have ever known on the outside.

Askham offers order and stability, companionship and advice. Here, young mothers go to work (in the main prison) each day without worrying about how to pay for care in the prison creche. "Prison is a sort of dream world," says Helen Hill, producer of the film. "It's a time of suspended animation; it doesn't really prepare you for real life."

But Askham and its officers are at least trying to help mothers to build some kind of a life after prison, and crucial to that is keeping mothers and children together, if possible, for all their sakes. "He needs me," says Keli McClay, cradling her infant son Callum, born after she was sentenced. "I couldn't cope without him."

Keli is an attractive character, obviously affectionate to her baby, and articulate. It is rather an unpleasant shock to find that she is inside for stabbing another young woman. The judge at her trial described her as "evil and malicious" and the headlines emphasised the fact that she was a "mum-to-be" who had been convicted of a violent crime.

She has a somewhat unnerving gaze, but does not come across as evil in the film as she pushes Callum's pram around the garden; perhaps she is a victim of the doctrine known as "doubly deviant, doubly damned".

Statistics show that many judges punish women far more severely than men convicted of similar crimes, because they believe women should behave better than men in the first place. And as motherhood is assumed to represent love and virtue, a mother who commits a crime must be chastised especially harshly.

But, as you watch this film, the overwhelming impression is not that these women are mad or bad, but that they are sad. Keli, for example, was expelled from Evesham High School at 13 for drinking and was (perhaps understandably) put into care by her mother.

It didn't help. By the time Keli was 16, she was into drugs. "It got more of a problem then, my temper," she says. "It got worse when the drugs started."

Gillian Cheesman, accompanied by her son Jordan, is inside for a similar attack. "I glassed somebody," she says. "I'm dead aggressive when I've had a drink." As the programme unfurls, we see more of Gillian's life back home in Newcastle. She points to her photos: her daughter Kimberly; "Jordan's dad with Gazza, my foster mam".

Then she explains that Jordan hasn't met his father because he doesn't believe the child is his - "but that's his problem". Gillian has a foster mother because when she was 10, her mother abandoned the children in favour of her new boyfriend. "It just makes me so annoyed," she says. "I'm so angry. What everyone wants is a family."

At least Kimberly is coming to see Gillian during the monthly family visit, an opportunity for mothers to spend time playing with their older children. Gillian, in common with other inmates and their children, refers to Askham as "hospital". It's a euphemism used by several of the children visiting the prison.

Sometimes you can get bullied if people know, one child explains. "It's really quiet without me mam coming home drunk," adds another, giggling. As the mothers seem younger than they are, so the children seem older.

Becky Mooney, 15, is visiting her mother, Jill, who is inside for fraud, theft of cheque books, that kind of thing. Jill wanted to give Becky all the material things that she never had as a child, but now realises that she and her daughter missed out in other ways.

Jill is lucky, though, perhaps because it is obvious she loves her daughter. Becky speaks with immense maturity of her mother's drug problems, breaking down only when she reveals: "every time I've thought she wouldn't go back, and she has; and every time it upsets me".

Jill, an optimist, finds a positive spin to her repeated stints in jail: that they will help Becky to break the mould. "Some of my bad experiences are going to help her make the right choice," she says hopefully. She may be right, if only because Becky seems an impressive young woman.

Becky, unlike Gillian, may at least grow up secure in the knowledge that her mother loves her, but she still faces the host of problems that beset families divided by imprisonment.

The first practical problem is often the loss of the family home. A Home Office study into mothers and pregnant women in jail found that 33 per cent of offenders' children had lived with their mother only, with another 31 per cent in a two-parent home and 10 per cent in care.

Of the children living with a mother who was subsequently jailed, only 11 per cent went to live with a father, with 49 per cent going to other relatives and 10 per cent being put in care. But even the children living with both parents fared badly once the mother was jailed; only 7 per cent were known to have stayed at home with Dad.

And where is the newly released prisoner to go? Many women, having lived in rented or council accommodation, lose their homes when they are imprisoned, and find themselves low down on the list when they are released.

When Home Office researchers asked prisoners awaiting release what their concerns were, they found that 63 per cent were worried about money, 39 per cent about accommodation and 31 per cent about the behaviour of their children.

The Prison Service recognises that female prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they can keep their families together, and return to their children and to a proper home. It recognises, too, the damage done to babies separated from their mothers when very young. But there is a limit to the help the service can provide.

Keli was released, with Callum, during the filming of the Channel 4 film. She was excited about returning to her family, but afraid of living in the same town as her victim; afraid of getting into another fight. And, like anyone leaving safe confines for the wide world - especially as she has Callum to worry about - she wondered: "How am I going to set up home?"

Lesley Redpass, a prison officer, has seen hundreds of women leave Askham Grange with the best of intentions, but she does not hold out much hope for most of them. "It doesn't happen," she says sadly but firmly. "Through no fault of their own sometimes, or through their own stupidity."

Keli, wearing a new dress for her release, is patted down and searched for the last time. But there are no guarantees for her nor, more important, for Callum. "Ta-ra, then, big feller," said Roger Henderson, a prison officer, as Keli prepared to take Callum home. "Good luck with Mummy." They will both need more than luck, but at least Askham Grange has given them a startn

`Witness: Babies Behind Bars' will be shown at 9pm this evening on Channel 4.