Babies are prisoners in cell block hate, research reveals

November 8, 1996

Jailed mothers and their children face a rigid "culture of scorn" in women's prisons in both Britain and Australia, according to research. This attitude meant few concessions were made for the feeding, changing and playing routines of young children allowed to remain with their mothers.

The four-year doctoral study of nine women's prisons was carried out by Ann Farrell, from the Centre for Applied Studies in Early Childhood at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.

She conducted 130 interviews with inmate mothers, custodial and non-custodial staff and policy-makers in Britain, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

The research exposed the stark contrast between prisons' written policies, which claim to protect the child's best interests and maintain the mother-child relationship, and the reality of jail routines.

Dr Farrell found the practice of "lock up" or "lock down" overnight or during lunch hours in some prisons left mothers with young children locked in their cells with no toilet facilities, running water or electricity to prepare bottles or simple meals.

One British prison did not use a modern, self-catering mother and baby facility because of an "entrenched insistence" that all prisoners, and young children, eat meals together at the same time for easy supervision.

These rules ran directly opposite to the needs of the mothers and could be very distressing for their children, Dr Farrell said. "I found substantial evidence that there are some very negative attitudes to women from the (mostly male) prison officers," she said.

"Inmate mothers are seen as law-breakers and as home-breakers who need to be locked up, even though the study shows the majority of mothers in prison are usually serving short sentences for crimes against property."

She argued that prisons needed policies that acknowledged the children of inmate mothers and supported the outside carers of their children. Children visiting their mothers were often subjected to security checks for drugs, and had to endure "alienating and universally awful" visiting areas. And inmates were often isolated from their families geographically.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said all prisoners encountered considerable hostility, and because of their gender, women and mothers suffered more. Although the situation had improved recently, it was still far from ideal. "(Prison) is a highly stressful and often physically dangerous environment and children, mothers or pregnant women shouldn't be there."

Children aged between nine months and 18 months could stay with their mothers, but only in certain prisons and only if space was available. Ms Crook said a baby born in prison could be taken away from its mother forcibly.

At the time of Dr Farrell's study there were 1,600 female inmates in British prisons - 3.5 per cent of the prison population. Australia's 760 women represented 2 per cent of the total prison population there.Now there are 2,426 prisoners in the 13 women's prisons in Britain. Four have mother and baby units.

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