Women in jail knitted together by family values: The Mothers' Union is venturing into fresh waters. Judith Judd reports

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The Independent Online
THE Mothers' Union, better known for cake-baking than social radicalism, has set up its first branch in a jail.

At a service in Holloway prison in north London on Tuesday night, nine prisoners promised to uphold the society's aim of advancing 'the Christian religion in the sphere of marriage and family life', and were duly enrolled.

The Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, took the service, and Diana, an inmate for 16 years, played the organ. In the congregation sat members of the society's London diocesan branch.

The new branch came about, unsurprisingly, because of knitting, when members on the outside started knitting jackets for prisoners' babies. They then provided toys, clothes and other gifts for the mothers and babies. It culminated in babysitting visits, to allow the mothers 'free' time.

'Like Topsy, it just grew and grew,' Mollie Nicholls, the London diocesan president, said. 'One day a group of prisoners came to us and said they wanted to have their own branch. We were delighted.'

The venture is the latest in a series which has changed the Mothers' Union's conservative image. Recently, it has debated the legalisation of brothels, questioned the importance of the nuclear family and run debt-counselling sessions, drop-in centres for the homeless and parenting courses for men and women.

The Holloway mothers believe membership will help them be good mothers. Sharon, whose 12-week-old baby, Precious, was born in Holloway, said: 'I've had a lot of support from the Mothers' Union, not just the toys and clothes but about how babies develop and how to play with them.'

Some also see the branch, one of nearly 6,000 in Britain and Ireland, as a force for good in the prison. Loveth, who has five children, said: 'I think that we can help other women here, for instance by persuading them not to take drugs because it is bad for their health.'

Others think it will help them when they are released. Diana, who is single and has no children, said: 'If you are a member of the Mothers' Union, you are somebody. You are more respected. I hope it means people will trust me to look after their kids when I get out.'

She thought the Mothers' Union was all about church bazaars and jam tarts, but the members who visited Holloway made her change her mind. 'Most people who come in here treat us as criminals. The Mothers' Union treat us as human beings.'

Irene Money, the London diocesan branch's chair of social concern, said: 'At first members find it hard to perceive the anguish of women who have left their husbands and children outside, but when their plight is explained, they warm to it.' She said the society was open to men and women who accepted its aims, whatever their marital status.

(Photograph omitted)