12/01/2016 03:44 GMT | Updated 08/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Babies in Prison

One of the few countries in the world that does not have babies in prison is Norway. Internationally the existence of babies in prison is a phenomenon which allows children to remain with their mother in their early years. Across the world there are variations with policy and practices. For example some countries such as India require prisons to offer nurseries and day care for their mothers and children. In Chile, babies born in prison begin state run educational programmes at 6 months of age. In Mexico babies can grow and stay with their mothers in prison until they are 6 years.

The existence of babies in prison can be traced to the earliest types of prison. There is evidence of a baby born in a prison in the 18th century in England and Wales. Across the world prisons included nurseries in the early 20th century, however over the past few years there has been a more punitive approach. Prisons have begun to question both the costs of imprisoning babies and the effects on children. Research within mother and baby units is very rarely conducted and when these studies do appear, they are narrowly focused using academic priorities. This blog post will outline the results of a unique study that has been carried out in Ireland as well as the current situation for charities which are supporting mother and babies in prison.


Maintaining the mother-child relationship:

Unlike other studies that have either focused generally on the work of special mother and baby units or the experiences of mothers in prison, a recent study considers the work of practitioners. This study outlines that in the context of a small study, the results were not necessarily representative of all practitioners who work with women prisoners. Despite this, the study by O'Malley and Devaney (2015) called 'maintaining the mother-child relationship within the Irish prison system: the practitioner perspective', provides a detailed insight into how babies are looked after by prisons. Within Ireland, babies are allowed to be with their mothers until 12 months of age. The view from practitioners was that allowing children to stay with their mothers benefits the rehabilitative process of mothers. Despite this, the study highlights that caring for babies in prison is stressful and mothers can have unease about other prisoners touching their babies, visits are challenging and extra contact with the outside world need to be arranged.

The study by O'Mally (2015) does not only explore the work within mother and baby units in Ireland but also this research has focused on issues relating to the support for practitioners working in mother and baby units. This study found that practitioners want to support the mother-child bond however there are paradoxes. For example, this study found that practitioners within the prison liaise with social workers on all issues concerning the mother-child relationship. The main examples of good practice were found through individual practices of workers in the prison and like so many other studies there was found to be a need for more research to identify the appropriate response to the needs of mothers and babies in prison.

Mothers in prison:

There have been many studies about issues relating to mothers in prison. Despite this, prisons are known to be designed by men. Within England and Wales, current politicians have made commitments to reduce the amount of women in prison. Campaigners and academics have applauded attempts to divert women away from the prison system and it is generally agreed that this will result in less babies in prison. A recent study has found that within England and Wales not only are mother and baby units under-used but also there is a high rejection of mother and baby unit applications (O'Keefe et al, 2015). While some research has suggested that the under use of mother and baby units is linked to issues for women prior to imprisonment such as mental health or substance misuse others in the United States have linked cost issues to the under-use of mother and baby units.

Consequences of less mother and baby units:

Many reformers and academics are campaigning for changes to the sentencing arrangements of mothers. These campaigns are recognising that issues lie with the attitudes of practitioners in the criminal justice system who are responsible indirectly for arresting, charging and then sentencing women to custodial sentences. These arguments are complex, however it is not difficult to see that the effects of imprisonment of mothers can be devastating for children. It is claimed that despite a lack of accurate statistics it is estimated that only 5% of children remain in their family home when their mother is imprisoned.

Despite the need for campaigns to reform the sentencing of mothers, conditions of mother and baby units as well as the work of practitioners within prisons, there has been a lack of attention about babies in prison. The only charity in England and Wales that is associated with babies in prison has seen its funds dramatically drop. Babies in prison is a charity that was established in 1992 and raises money to visit as well as support mothers in prison. Changes within the female prison estate in England and Wales have focused on closing down the mother and baby units first. Following the recent closure of the mother and baby unit at HMP Holloway, special sensory equipment bought by babies in prison has been transferred to HMP Styal. This raises many questions about why small charities, with few resources are providing the equipment in the first place?

For more please go to research for women in prison