Why we need prison mother and baby units

With the closure of some Mother and Baby Units and others under threat, the future for mothers and babies in prison is uncertain and the options for many women in prison, particularly those serving longer sentences, to keep their families together remain extremely limited.

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Enhancing Care for Childbearing Women and their Babies in Prison

A new (December 2015) report: ‘Enhancing Care for Childbearing Women and their Babies in Prison’ highlights two major findings:

  1. That mothers and babies in prison can often benefit from residing in a supportive Mother and Baby Unit (MBU), and
  2. That the number of places in MBUs is falling and that current resources are often under-used

The report was written by Caroline O’Keeffe and Lesley Dixon and is a joint venture of Action for Prisoners’ and Offenders’ Families, part of Family Lives (APOF) and the Hallam Centre for Community Justice.

The report brings together findings from a literature review, the results of a questionnaire distributed to all women’s prisons in England and interviews with 22 specialist practitioners who work with childbearing women and their babies both in prison and the community.


The advantages of Mother and Baby Units

In the UK female estate there are 13 female prisons, eight of which have Mother and Baby Units (six in England and two in Scotland), there are also two Mother and Baby rooms in Northern Ireland. Together these have capacity to accommodate approximately 73 mothers and their babies.

The report finds that a period in an MBU offers a relatively predictable environment where mothers and their babies are protected from some of the risk factors which blight their lives (including partners ‘telling them what to do’). It can also offer mothers the opportunity to bond with their baby in a more stable environment than usual. In particular it was felt that MBU staff can provide a vital source of support for mothers, a secure base from which mothers can explore and begin to re-shape their self-narratives, a crucial first step in the journey to more effective parenting and desisting from crime. For some women this may be the first time they have experienced a nurturing attachment.

Unsurprisingly, the research also finds that maternal separation following imprisonment may damage attachment and increase the likelihood of poor developmental outcomes for children as well as high levels of severe mental illness among women who have been forcibly separated from their babies in this way.


The under-use of Mother and Baby Units

Although the report finds that MBUs can be a positive environment for women prisoners and their babies, places are often either not available or not taken up, for a wide range of reasons including:

  • Women choosing to not reveal their status as mothers to the authorities and making their own ‘informal’ care arrangements;
  • Women not expecting to receive a custodial sentence at court so are unprepared for making the necessary care arrangements, including MBU application;
  • Women being traumatised when they arrive in prison creating a difficult context in which to absorb information about their child placement options;
  • The trauma of arrival in prison causing a mother’s breast milk to dry up thus having a detrimental impact on the bond with their baby, and making it less likely that they will seek to keep their baby with them;
  • Mothers feeling like they are ‘choosing’ their baby over their older children who may be living with relatives in the community, should they apply for an MBU place;
  • Women being inadequately informed about the provision available in MBUs and the benefits of residing in one;
  • Some social workers working within a ‘pro-separation’ model which focuses on finding alternative care for children rather than exploring fully the possibility of MBU placement;
  • Mothers viewing themselves as incapable of effective parenting and their babies as being better off without them; and
  • Women coming under pressure from family members to leave their babies in the community.

The report is particularly timely given the current upheaval and uncertainty in the criminal justice system as a result of the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms. With the closure of some MBUs and other MBUs under threat, the future for mothers and babies in prison is uncertain and the options for many women in prison, particularly those serving longer sentences, to keep their families together remain extremely limited.  The report highlights some of the challenges and also opportunities for caring for mothers in prison and their babies, within the context of these changes.


Conclusions and Recommendations

The report makes a series of recommendations including:

  •  Effective and tailored alternative sentencing options for mothers of young children need to be available to sentencers.
  •  Preferably when a custodial sentence is considered likely pre-sentence, or otherwise as soon as possible after a custodial sentence has been given women need early access to relevant, appropriate and timely information about MBUs in order to make an informed decision about child placement.
  •  The benefits of MBUs need to be actively promoted to external staff, to mothers and also to non MBU prison staff.
  •  Mothers in prison need programmes which address self-esteem and healthy relationships.
  •  Intensive support packages, with a strong therapeutic focus should be put in place for women who have had their babies adopted, during the mother’s prison sentence and continued post-release.
  •  Release from prison needs to be viewed as a process not as an event. The sentence planning of women prisoners who are also mothers needs to include parenting support on release and a ‘whole family’ approach where appropriate.
  •  Programmes which encourage healthy attachment and which have a therapeutic element should be developed and funded at the same time as through the gate programmes and funding for longitudinal evaluation of these programmes.

Optimistically, the report’s authors argue that the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms could be seen as an opportunity to encourage and promote joint models of working (e.g. between criminal justice system, social care, children and family services, health services, housing).  A more joined up commissioning framework could create a sense of shared responsibility for mothers and babies in prison and on release.


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