Mothers & prison: Babies behind bars

The shocking rate at which Britain jails women damages thousands of innocent children every year and poses mounting risks for society. In a special week-long series, we ask: Isn't there a better way?

Paul Vallely
Thursday 20 September 2012 22:00 BST

Sandra McConnell was not expecting to go to prison. She knew the charge against her – conspiracy to supply drugs – was serious, but it dated from some years earlier. Since then she had got her life together. She had been off drugs for nearly two years. She had her own three-bedroom house in Birmingham where she lived with her four-year-old daughter. She had started an Open University course. And she was pregnant.

"I was expecting to walk out of the court but I got sent down," she says, sitting with her baby, Morrison, on her knee. She has just come in from the garden, where she has been entertaining her three-month-old son by watching the pink and yellow flowers waving in the wind.

But this is not a normal garden. It stands in the lee of a 10-foot metal fence with spikes on the top. Above that is another 10 feet of metal mesh topped with a double roll of razor wire. Morrison was born in prison, and he will spend the first nine months of his life there – until his mother has completed her sentence.

There has been a dramatic rise in the numbers of women in British prisons. The figure in England has more than doubled over the past two decades to 4,144 – the highest rate of female imprisonment in the European Union. But because so many sentences are short, that figure disguises the fact that some 10,181 women were put behind bars last year alone. More than half of those women are mothers. According to statistics published by the Ministry of Justice in March, there are about 200,000 children with a father or mother in prison – more than three times the number of children in state care.

Thanks to the mother and baby units which the Prison Service has established inside eight of Britain's 13 women's jails, it is now possible for about 80 of those children to be with their mothers – but behind bars.

One of the units is at Eastwood Park, a closed women's prison in a rural setting between Gloucester and Bristol. To get to the low brick mother and baby unit (MBU) you have to pass through three 20ft high green metal gates. But once through the final gate, there are no locks on the doors.

In the grounds there is a small slide and a climbing frame, a set of hoops made from giant pencils and, amid the flower beds, a set of willow arches beneath which babies can gaze up from their prams at the fluttering leaves. Inside, a row of buggies fills the hallway.

The prisoners and their babies sleep in unlocked rooms rather than cells. Each room has its own bathroom and is fitted with plain but attractive furniture and wooden cots. To one side – past a large tank filled with black and gold tropical fish – is a TV room with squashy leather sofas, a playpen and a big smiley mat on the floor. At the end of the ground floor is a large nursery with tiny tables, jigsaw floor mats, a sandpit and a low library of children's books.

Today there are five mothers on the unit, with three more in hospital giving birth. Another mother, who gave birth recently, is back in hospital with complications. Women in custody are five times more likely to have health problems, mental and physical, than women in the general population.

On one of the leather sofas sits 18-year-old Emma, bottle-feeding her 11-week-old son. "He's on Cow & Gate Hungrier Baby feed," she says proudly.

She is wearing a black top and trousers. Prisoners are allowed to wear their own clothes. It helps raise self-esteem, which is perennially low among women prisoners. There were a total of 26,983 incidents of self-harm in prisons in 2010; of those 47 per cent were by women, even though they constitute just 5 per cent of the total prison population.

"I didn't know I was pregnant when I was sentenced," says Emma, who does not want to say what offence she committed. "But they do a drug and pregnancy test when you arrive in prison. The prison officer who did it said: 'Is there something you want to tell me?'. But it was her that told me I was going to have a baby."

When she was eight months pregnant she was transferred from the juvenile wing the MBU. "It was a shock coming here. You don't get locked in your room. The beds have something like a proper mattress and the rooms have a proper toilet. And they don't take your razor off you to stop you self-harming."

The mothers are expected to work or attend classes to deal with their offending behaviour and educate themselves for resettlement, according to the sentencing plan set for them, although for the first eight weeks after the birth they are excused those. The unit has no official rising time, since women are sometimes up through the night with their babies. But they work from 9.30am to 11.45am and then have time with their babies before returning to work from 2.30pm to 5pm.

Places on an MBU are highly sought after, although the units are not always full. Many women admitted to prison have their babies cared for by relatives. Other babies are taken into care by social services where the mother is considered unfit because of violent behaviour, drug use or neglect of previous children.

But if a woman can prove by repeated testing that she is drug-free, and is deemed not to be a danger to her baby or other women, she can apply to move from any prison to one of the eight MBUs. Places are allocated both to women who have left young babies outside and to those who give birth in jail. (Two babies a week are born in the jails of England and Wales).

The aim is to establish and maintain a bond between mother and child, in line with evidence that a key psychological process of attachment takes place between babies and their primary caregiver in the first six to seven months of life, which influences the later development.

"It's hard to get into this unit," says Emma. "When I first came to Eastwood Park they made clear on the juvenile wing that my behaviour had to be spotless if I wanted to get a place here. That meant not getting into arguments with anyone, which is hard when you are cooped up with a load of other women in such a small space. You can see that from watching Big Brother. People fall out about anything."

Life Inside

Mark Thompson, the governor of the unit, is unrepentant about its demanding standards. "It is not here for the mothers," he says. "It's for the children who have not done anything wrong and who deserve to have a good start in life – and perhaps get a better one in here than they would have had with their mum's previous chaotic lifestyle. This is a stable, calm and peaceful environment and the women here are often far safer than in their old life."

At the forefront of shaping that environment is Ruth Bevan, the nursery manager. Like the rest of the staff she wears a blue shirt and dark skirt or trousers, rather than a prison officer's uniform. "People assume that mums know what's best for their babies but that's not always true," she says. "Most of our mums have really low skills. Some can't even cook scrambled egg. One had never seen a melon before.

"One of the prison chefs, Jenny, comes down twice a week to teach them cooking. They like that, especially once the babies are being weaned, they often say, 'My baby liked that; will you teach me how to cook it?' We try to teach them how to cook healthy, nutritious, cheap food on a budget."

They also have to teach some of the prisoners parenting skills as basic as how to play with their babies. "We show them things that cost little – like playing with rice grains or just a saucepan and a wooden spoon," Ms Bevan says.

Julie Housham, an NHS health visitor, comes in twice a week to give support with breast and bottle feeding, establishing routines, and even teaching the women how to change a nappy or sterilise a bottle. "Some of the mums have had quite negative experiences with professionals," she says. "It's good to be able to build up long-term relationships. Some can be here from 36 weeks ante-natal until the child is 18 months. You see them grow in confidence and self-esteem.

"It's a very supportive place, though we do challenge the women when we think they are doing what suits them, rather than what's in the best interests of the child."

Tensions can arise from that. Ms Bevan says: "Three months ago we banned daytime telly because some of the women just wanted to plonk their child in front of Jeremy Kyle in the morning and again for the afternoon repeat. We want to encourage more meaningful interactive mum-time."

The TV ban, along with a decision to ban smoking even in the unit's garden, did not go down well with some of the inmates. "The staff are very nosey and inquisitive," complains Emma. "They are always prying into what you are doing. They told me it was a waste of money for me to put Bio Oil [used on stretch marks] on my weekly shopping list. They wanted me to get baby oil because it's cheaper. But it's my money so it's up to me what I spend it on.

"They listen in to your phone calls, which they don't in the main prison. There's no privacy. And though they let you put your baby in the nursery to go to doctor's appointments, they won't let you do it to go to the gym. You get no time to yourself. There is nothing here for you to do except be a mum. It is all just baby, baby, baby in here."

Another young mum, Katie, 26, from Wales, joins in the complaint. "I've been in the baby unit for four months now, but it feels like a year. The time drags. There's no snooker tables here like in the main prison. And they have courses there – healthy living on a budget, nail art, arts and crafts, maths, English."

Her seven-month-old, Tallulah, is crawling on the smiley mat in front of her. She tickles her tummy as she adds: "On the main wing it's a bit of a laugh. You get to know people. They come in for two weeks and then go out for six, and then they are back in again. So you make friends and mess about. It's a laugh. But here every day is the just the same".

Mother versus child

The MBU governor has no patience with all this. "The interests of the mother and the best interests of the child are not always the same thing," Mr Thompson says. "One of the tricky parts of our job is managing where in the day-to-day those two paths diverge. It's a difficult balancing act.

"On the one hand the staff aren't there to assess the mum. On the other, they aren't there to be stand-in mums themselves. It's not our job to look after their baby for them, but rather to help them develop a sense of parental responsibility."

Many of the prisoners are fully appreciative of that. Chan, 24, from China, is full of praise. "It is very comfortable here," she says. "The officers here are very helpful. They are very reliable. They can sort out any problems you have. If your baby is ill he's straight off to the clinic. The officers are like family. They can figure out what your problem is before you tell them."

A high percentage of women in British jails – around one in five – are foreign nationals. Chan had just completed a Masters degree as an interpreter when she was arrested for identity fraud. "Other people put my photo in their passport and I went in and took their exams for them," she confesses. "I did it while I was waiting for a visa extension so I could work. I signed for voluntary deportation and thought I would be in China before my baby was born. But I got a one-year sentence."

She cradles her nine-week-old on her lap and says: "Prison is much better here than in China. We don't have this kind of unit in China. But I wouldn't have had a jail sentence in China for an offence as minor as this."

It is hard not to conclude that Chan is one of the many women whom prison reformers believe should not be in jail at all. "A significant number of women in prison aren't a risk to the public," says Baroness Jean Corston, who wrote a seminal report on women in British prisons in 2007. Chan is clearly one of those for whom punishment in the community, or deportation, would have been more apt – and considerably cheaper.

Decisions on which prisoners are admitted to an MBU are taken by an assessment board chaired by an outsider together with social workers, probation officers and the manager of the unit. The nature of the woman's offence is not as important as her ability and willingness to embrace the calm and friendly atmosphere, which is essential for the welfare of the babies and for the smooth running of the unit.

"We have one mum in who was convicted of conspiracy to murder," says Mr Thompson. "But when we drilled down into the offence we were satisfied that she was no danger to the other women or children on the unit. Some offences, like arson, you'd have to risk assess very carefully. A child-related offence would be precluded."

There is an appeals process for those who are turned down. Katie used it. "They turned me down for a place on the unit because my other two children were taken off me and adopted because of my drugs use," she explains in a matter-of-fact manner as she hauls back Tallulah, who is crawling rapidly across the mat.

"I got a 14-month sentence for drugs and wounding," she adds. "Nearly everyone in this prison is in for something drugs-related." That is also true nationally. One Ministry of Justice survey suggested that 52 per cent of women in prison had used heroin, crack or cocaine in the four weeks prior to custody – a far higher percentage than among male prisoners.

"For the first three months, Tallulah went out to her grandmother because her father is in jail for the same offence," Katie continues. "But from when I came in I was clean and I kept taking voluntary tests to prove to social services that I was not using drugs. So I appealed and won, with the help of the Children's Guardian, and got a place here. So Tallulah came in when she was three months old."

But decisions can also go in the opposite direction. One mother in the unit had her child taken away from here after a series of incidents which culminated in her throwing a rock through a window. She was deemed a danger to the other mothers and babies and was sent back to the main wing. Her baby was adopted.

Women in custody are five times more likely to have mental health problems than women in the general population, a study by the University of Oxford has shown. As many as 78 per cent exhibit "some level of psychological disturbance" when they arrive in prison, compared with 15 per cent for the general adult female population. Adding to that, many women prisoners are stressed from worrying about their other children, or their partner outside (or often in another prison).

Some women turn down places in an MBU when they find it will mean moving some considerable distance from home. The average woman prisoner is held 55 miles from her home and, according to the latest figures from the Prison Reform Trust, 753 women are held more than 100 miles away.

Women with other children at home find this a particular dilemma. They feel they are faced with preferring the interests of one child over another. "It's a bit of a Solomon's choice," says Karen Moorcroft, who manages the MBU at Styal Prison in Cheshire.

Other women are not even given that choice. "A fair proportion of the women who have babies in prison will have the child taken from them at birth to be placed into care," Mr Thompson says. "On separation at birth we'd be guided by social services reports or whether the mother was still leading a chaotic lifestyle inside prison. So it would be tantamount to cruelty to allow them to bond with the child and then take it from them."

Generally those children who are allowed to remain with their mothers in an MBU do so until they are around 18 months old. After that, child development experts say, the harmful effects of being in an institution start to outweigh the benefits of being with their mother.

As a result, most mothers in MBUs are serving sentences of less than 18 months. "If a woman has a five-year sentence then separation is inevitable," Mr Thompson says. "So, on expert advice, we might decide that earlier separation – at six months, or nine months if the mother is breastfeeding – would produce least trauma to the baby. In another case a mum couldn't establish a routine with her child once it got to nine months and started to crawl and vocalise and started teething. She asked to be separated and the child was adopted. These are always difficult individual decisions."

Such choices are not taken by the prison authorities, but by an independent separation board chaired by an independent chairman. "In eight years we have had just seven enforced separations," says Ms Bevan, the nursery manager.

"We consult the mother extensively. Some want a sudden clean-break separation. Most prefer a gradual one where baby goes to its new carer for a short visit, then overnight, then for a few nights or even a week."

Sometimes babies are sent out with photographs of their mother, or even with a tape of her reading from a favourite storybook.

But not all prisons act with sensitivity. The chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, recently spoke of a final separation session he had witnessed in which a social worker brought in a baby so that its mother could say goodbye one last time before it was adopted. It happened in a crowded prison visiting room, where the mother became greatly distressed in front of the other prisoners and visitors. It was not an aberration, he discovered, but normal practice there.

A sterile life

In one corner of the nursery in Eastwood Park's MBU is a little wooden flight of stairs, carpeted and with a wooden handrail. "Climbing stairs is difficult to replicate on a prison's metal staircases," says Ms Bevan. "This is one of the ways we try to normalise experiences."

A prison is not the best place to bring up a baby. The Prison Service leaflet advising women thinking about applying to an MBU warns: "Your baby will miss having contact with normal daily life, such as family, traffic, shops, parks and animals." At Eastwood Park, the staff take the babies to supermarkets, parks, libraries or swimming baths from when they are just a few weeks old to broaden their range of experiences.

"Just going in a car and a car seat, or sitting in a shopping trolley, is part of it," says Ms Bevan. "We take them to a garden centre where there are animals and fish in fish tanks, and where other mums stop and look at them and say they are cute – that's learning about the voices of strangers. If you keep a baby away from all that and then let them out when their mum ends her sentence, all those new experiences hit them at once like an explosion."

In Styal the staff take strawberries and kiwis in for the babies because food like that isn’t normally provided in prisons, says Karen Moorcroft. Styal’s nursery, which is run not by the prison service but by an outside charity Action for Children, looks after the children of staff as well as prisoners, so the children there meet a wider variety of other children and mothers.

But of course, Mr Thompson says, it's no substitute for living in the real world. "There is so much we can't replicate. There are no cars or dogs or people playing football around them in the park. Our environment is very sterile for a child. They can't learn about going out to play unsupervised with friends, or have access to IT, or learn road safety or the things that they will need to keep themselves safe in the outside world. And it can be hard to socialise an 18-month-old in a unit where all the other children are babes in arms."

Prisoner Sandra McConnell is aware of those limitations for her three-month-old, Morrison. "He'll be with me till I'm released," she says. "I got 10 months. He's fine just now. But I'll get more concerned the older he gets. These units are great for babies but there is less and less for him to do the older he gets.

"He's been out twice this week; to Asda and to Mothercare in a pram. It's good. The first couple of times they go out you feel very odd, putting your kid in other people's hands. But they need to go out. This place is too quiet; if they hear a loud noise they jump. They need to get used to the real world." She is increasingly concerned too, as time goes by, about the impact of her absence on her four-year-old daughter, whom she sees only twice a month at official visiting times. "I told her that I came away to have the baby. But I'm worried that the longer I'm away the more worried she'll become.

"But on balance I think this is a great place," she concludes. "I've learned to cook here; before I just did pizza and chips and takeaways. When I get out I'm going to finish my degree and learn to drive. There's no way I won't stay clean now after all the hard work I've done."

Looking around, it is not hard to see why Martin Narey, who was head of the Prison Service until 2005, says he is "as proud of Mother and Baby Units as anything I achieved in my time in the prison service." But what of the thousands of other mothers in British jails?

The names of the prisoners and their children have been changed

Tomorrow: The women prisoners separated from their children

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in