Helena Kennedy: It is time we stopped putting so many mothers behind bars

Most of these women should not be in prison anyway

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Two hundred babies were born in British prisons over the past two years. This means 200 pregnant women were sent to prison either to await trial or to be punished. To be absolutely exact, the babies were rarely born inside the gates: most women are taken under escort by prison officers to a local hospital for the delivery and returned shortly after. Women often give birth with prison officers stationed in hospital birthing rooms because of feared escapes - though I have never once heard of any woman in labour making a break for freedom. Some "stroppy" women are still shackled until they are actually being treated, and it is claimed by prison support groups that there is an enthusiasm for epidurals because it immobilises the women and makes supervision easier.

No one should really be surprised at the escalation in figures. If you double the number of women in prison over a 10-year period, then, given the age of most female offenders, it is not surprising that there will be a baby boom in women's prisons. However, what makes the news of these births so shocking is that comparatively few of these women are in prison for offences of violence. Most of these mothers should not be in prison anyway; they are there for low-level crimes which have been repeated, usually because of drug dependency.

However, because sentences have been ratcheted up over recent years in response to a tabloid clamour for more punishment, the humane and practical arguments for community sentencing are often ignored by the courts. Government has to take some share of the blame for failing to conduct a sensible debate on when prison is appropriate and when it is not. Because of the Dutch auction that exists between the parties over who can be tougher on crime, the justice system echoes the same rhetoric for fear of being accused of being over-lenient.

Clearly, there are cases - murder, grievous harm or organised crime - where a court has no alternative but to incarcerate a woman, whatever her condition. But these cases are rare.

Babies can stay with their mothers for up to nine months in Holloway and up to 18 months in Styal prison. The decision to allow a woman to have her newborn with her depends on many factors, and is not a matter of right in the UK. However, the Human Rights Act has been successfully invoked in one case to press the Prison Department into allowing a mother to keep her baby with her.

As soon as a woman gives birth, a "separation plan" is made for those who will remain in prison beyond their babies' early months. The separations are some of the most heartbreaking events in a prison. Prison officers have told me it is the worst part of their work, watching a woman part with her baby. Some refuse to be involved in the baby units because they cannot deal with the pain.

Fifteen years ago I made a film with a wonderful director, the late Polly Bide, called Mothers Behind Bars. It looked at the effect on children and argued for better sentencing policies, better visiting arrangements for children and for a review of the arrangements for women having babies in prison. We made the argument as one of children's rights: the children have done nothing wrong. At the time, the documentary made waves and the Home Office embraced arguments for change. However, in the past 10 years because of the huge increase of women in prison, the stress on the system has taken its toll. Holloway is now the largest women's prison in Europe. While the mother and baby units in the British prison system try to create some semblance of normality, conditions are hardly favourable for new arrivals into our world. Babies just should not be in prison if it can be avoided.

In New York state, a woman in prison has the right to keep her baby with her until the child is 18 months old, unless there is risk of abuse. Arrangements are then made to foster the child in the vicinity so that strong relationships are maintained. Research in the US has shown that where mothers are well supported, and have strong relationships with their children, there is less reoffending.

I have long argued that, before sentencing the primary carer of a child, a criminal court should be required to obtain a welfare report on the effects of imprisonment and separation on the child. Most primary carers are women, but the same concerns can affect a lone male parent.

The question always asked is whether women today are becoming more criminal. Is this why our prisons are filling up? The answer is no. The real horror story is the extent to which most women in prison have themselves been the victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, which in turn leads to substance abuse and aberrant lives. The courts have to stop reaching for jail terms as an answer to social problems and we, the public, should campaign for community sentences.

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