Prison agrees to consider plight of baby

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The Independent Online
THE PRISON Service is to reconsider the plight of an inmate refused a place in a mother and baby unit and, in a move with far-reaching implications for women in jail, plans to review its policies and procedures in such cases.

In a climbdown at the Court of Appeal in London yesterday, the Prison Service agreed to reassess the woman's application and to give primary consideration to her baby's interests.

The 24-year-old inmate, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had faced separation from her two-week-old daughter. She was denied a place in the mother and baby unit at Holloway prison, north London, because of her "unpredictable" and allegedly violent behaviour.

In what became a test case on the rights of mothers to keep their children in prison, she challenged that decision through the courts, saying it was unfair and unlawful. Her lawyers have argued that the violent incidents in which she was alleged to have been involved were disputed, and that the original admissions board did not call relevant witnesses.

Yesterday, midway through an appeal against a refusal by the High Court to grant her judicial review, lawyers for the Prison Service offered to set up a new admissions board to reconsider her application this week.

Nicholas Adams, the woman's solicitor, visited her in hospital after the hearing and said later that she was "extremely pleased" about the development. The new board will be differently constituted, with a chairman from outside Holloway and representatives from two other prisons with special facilities - Styal in Cheshire and New Hall in West Yorkshire.

If she is not given a place at one of the units, her baby will be taken into care. But Mr Adams said that if she was rejected for the same reasons, her lawyers would return to court.

Yesterday, after Lord Justice Brooke, sitting with Lord Justices Evans and Ward, voiced concern about the procedures followed in such cases, Kenneth Parker QC, counsel for the Prison Service, said that a review of the system was "in hand" as a result of the case.

The three judges made clear that "primary consideration" should always be given to a child's welfare, although it had to be balanced against the need for "good order and discipline" in the special units.

A shake-up aimed at heading off further challenges is likely to result in more women who give birth in prison being allowed to keep their children. However, there are only 68 places in units in England and Wales.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, welcomed the outcome of yesterday's hearing. "It does not set a legal precedent, but it sets a practical precedent... The message must go to the courts: don't send pregnant women to prison because the prisons won't be able to cope," she said.