Mother knows best, but who decides?

Should women prisoners be allowed to keep their new-born babies? One case challenges the legal right to separate a mother and her baby
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The Independent Online

The walls are painted in pastel colours and decorated with transfers of Winnie the Pooh. Amid the gurgling of infant voices and the whirr of nappy-cleaning washing machines, visitors to Level D4 at HMP Holloway could easily forget that they were in Europe's largest women's prison. On Level D4 - or Hi-Babes Nursery as it known within the jail - 17 women prisoners are attempting in the most difficult of circumstances to bring up their baby offspring.

The walls are painted in pastel colours and decorated with transfers of Winnie the Pooh. Amid the gurgling of infant voices and the whirr of nappy-cleaning washing machines, visitors to Level D4 at HMP Holloway could easily forget that they were in Europe's largest women's prison. On Level D4 - or Hi-Babes Nursery as it known within the jail - 17 women prisoners are attempting in the most difficult of circumstances to bring up their baby offspring.

The nursery is one of four mother and baby units providing a total of 64 places for female inmates with children under the age of 18 months.

Yet there is one mother in the prison who can only dream of a place in Hi-Babes. The 18-year-old, who gave birth to a daughter three weeks ago, is being held in a cell on one of the prison's standard wings. Her baby has been taken from her and placed with foster carers.

The story of Prisoner L is one that raises crucial and emotive questions over the nature of the relationship between mother and child. The case is now the subject of a High Court battle.

The inmate herself considers that she has a legal right to be with her baby, while she is being held in prison on remand. But the Prison authorities, advised by social workers and other health professionals, have deemed that they cannot provide a safe environment for the pair to remain together.

The Prison Service said: "There are certain difficulties with the lady herself. There are doubts that social services have about her capability of looking after the child unless she was fully supervised at all times."

Holloway governor, David Lancaster, refused the pregnant Prisoner L a place on the mother and baby unit before Christmas, arguing that the required level of supervision could not be provided in a prison environment.

Her judgment was based on a decision reached by the Area Child Protection Committee in Brent, north London, to place the baby on the child protection register, before she was born. The prisoner was distraught at the prospect of being separated from her child and instructed solicitors to make a legal challenge to the governor's decision.

She was transferred to the Whittington Hospital, north London, and gave birth to her daughter on 28 December. Her supporters and relatives argue that she has since behaved like a model mother. Her solicitor Mike Tait said that nurses had been very happy with her conduct during 13 days in hospital, despite the stress she was under and the constant presence of at least two prison guards.

On Friday 7 January, Mr Tait thought he had secured a means of keeping mother and baby together when he successfully applied to a court for her to be released on bail.

The condition was that she resided at a privately run hostel in Liverpool, which was known to have a specialty in providing support for problem mothers and their young babies. But when senior social services officials from Brent went to visit the hostel the following weekend they decided that it was not a safe environment for the baby girl. All efforts to trace hostels in other parts of the country failed as units were either unsuitable or full, a council spokesman said.

With hospital beds at the Whittington in demand, the Prison Service decided to move Prisoner L back to Holloway. Because she could not meet her bail conditions, her baby was taken and placed in care. A spokesman said: "We could not keep her in hospital. She was taking up a bed and there is nothing physically wrong with her. The separation had to take place."

This morning, at a further High Court hearing Prisoner L's relatives hope that she will be allowed to be reunited with her daughter at a Bristol hostel with a mother and baby unit. The hostel, however, may not be willing to take the pair. The case has once again focused interest on the rights of the 3,200 women prisoners in England and Wales, of whom 60 per cent are mothers of children under the age of 16.

"Unless she has been convicted of a very serious offence, I don't think a woman and her baby should be in prison at all," said Angela Devlin, author of Invisible Women, What's Wrong with Women's Prisons? She said remand prisoners and women convicted of less serious crimes should be allowed to remain with their babies in special secure units outside of prisons. Ms Devlin said: "What is tragic about this case and others like it is that there is a will to find alternatives to custody but there is a lack of investment in such alternatives." She said it made financial sense to build more mother and baby hostels when women in prison were costing £25,000 a year to keep in custody.

Beatrice Burgess, chair of Babies in Prison, a volunteer-run charity that aims to help address the needs of children in prison, said the mother was "not necessarily the right person" for the child to be with and pointed out that many prisoners preferred to place their babies with relatives rather than keep them in jail.

She said some mothers with emotional problems could wreck the atmosphere of a mother and baby unit. "When you have somebody who is highly strung and prone to violence, you find that the other mothers retreat into their cells." Ms Burgess said mother and baby units should allow for the "intellectual development" of the children. "These children are isolated from normal everyday experiences," she said.

Staff in mother and baby units - a mixture of nursery nurses and prison officers - are kept to a minimum to ensure that the ambience is not too oppressive.

The Holloway nursery has its own roof-garden with hanging flower baskets and a baby stimulation room with coloured lights and soothing music. Women who are entitled to child benefit have individual cells, but they are not locked in at night because the babies themselves are not prisoners. There are other mother and baby units at Styal prison in Cheshire, New Hall in Wakefield and Askham Grange open prison at York. Last year a 24-year-old Holloway prisoner was offered a place on the mother-and-baby unit at Styal prison after making a successful legal challenge to the decision to deny her a place on the unit.

The case prompted a review of the units by the Prison Service, which agreed last month to make the "best interests of the child" the first priority in all future cases. A spokesman for the Women's Policy Unit at the prison Service admitted that more mother and baby places would be needed as the female prison population continued to grow to new record levels.

Prisoner L, meanwhile, is due back before the courts again on 24 February to face charges of robbery and attempted robbery.