A crying baby signals the start of another day. A young woman watches the news whilst her gurgling toddler giggles at the tropical fish tank, before crawling along the hall to the nursery and playing with a jigsaw. Normality, except for one difference: just outside the window is a twenty-foot fence of spikes, metal mesh and razor wire.  Every phone call made is listened into, there exists an insufferable lack of privacy, and one foot wrong could quickly lead to the child’s separation from its mother.

This is the situation at the eight mother and baby prison units (MBU) across the UK, where babies can stay with their mothers for up to eighteen months, after which the harmful effects of being in an institution start to outweigh the benefits of keeping the pair together. Despite these safeguards, many babies born in prison suffer detrimental effects later in life, such as a double risk of mental health problems, whilst the potential of anti-social and delinquent behavioural problems increases three-fold. And as David Cameron recently pointed out in a landmark speech calling for the reform of our justice system, many babies born behind bars return to these exact prisons decades later as criminals themselves.

“Many babies born behind bars return to these exact prisons decades later as criminals themselves”

It is somewhat of an understatement to say that something needs to be done to tackle the risks facing the 100 babies born behind bars every year. Many would argue that female prisoners do not deserve to have their babies with them in prison, and for the 19% that have committed dangerous and violent crimes, this is unquestionably true. Yet the vast majority of women and mothers imprisoned in the UK have committed neither a violent nor heinous crime; many are vulnerable victims of domestic abuse and mental distress, and almost half (48%) say they were coerced into committing their crime in order to support the drug habit of someone else. It goes without saying that a prison is not an ideal environment for babies and toddlers, but in some circumstances neither is it suitable place for their mothers.

Necessarily so, the Prime Minister’s speech focused on providing alternatives to locking both mothers and babies behind bars and proposed initiatives that would avoid non-violent women having to serve custodial sentences altogether. A key topic was the development of satellite tracking technology that is set to launch later this year, which would track nonaggressive criminals and thereby alleviate the need for themselves, and their babies, to be imprisoned.

“The current justice system is clearly not working”

This is supported by evidence indicating that the current justice system is clearly not working and measures of rehabilitation in prisons fall short: 46% of all prisoners reoffend within a year of being released. By changing tactics, and instead directing female offenders, in particular, through ‘problem-solving courts’ – which would offer treatment programmes for issues such as drug addiction – women could take control of their lives, care for their children and address their problems without jeopardising the crucial first months of their baby’s life.

Knowing the importance of the early years for a child’s development, it seems almost ludicrous that we are allowing hundreds of babies to spend their first weeks and months behind bars. Although MBUs are doing their best to provide a stimulating and pleasant environment to improve the child’s start to the world, the solution to motherhood whilst incarcerated will never be to remain in prison. Reformative, rehabilitative and educative measures must be taken to protect these vulnerable women from the clutches of crime and prevent their innocent babies from growing up under lock and key.

Laura Hanton

Image: Photocapy via Flickr

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