Baroness Floella Benjamin asks the government about reducing the number of infants imprisoned with their mothers
Is prison an appropriate environment for babies? I don’t think so, yet since 2010 more than 450 babies have spent time in prison with their mothers.
Women in prison, whether sentenced or on remand, are able to apply for a place on a mother and baby unit (MBU) if they have a child under the age of 18 months. But because there are only seven of these units in England and Wales, some women are denied places and their new born baby is taken from them shortly after birth.
Those who are accepted into the MBU are often placed very far from home. Inevitably, this has consequences for the woman’s relationships with her other children and family members.
Once on a MBU, a woman has very little autonomy over decisions such as what to feed her baby, whether or not to share a bed with her baby at night and how to spend quality time with her baby. Decisions most mothers take for granted such as choosing to spend time with their child in the park are not open to women on MBUs. We are institutionalising these women when we should be teaching them how to make the best decisions for themselves and their children free from interference from others.
Organisations such as the Howard League for Penal Reform has campaigned on the issue of babies in prison for many years and they argue that women with babies should not be held in conventional prisons. These babies have not been sentenced to imprisonment and their rights should be taken into account by the criminal justice system when it sends their mothers to prison.
The very small number of mothers who require a custodial sentence should not be housed in prisons but instead should be kept with their babies in local secure units. Instead of institutionalising these women, community based programmes would teach them to take responsibility for their own lives and the lives of their children.
Indeed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which The Howard League is a signatory, states, ‘In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.’
In the House of Lords I will raise my concerns about babies in prison with a question. I hope the Government will acknowledge that more must be done to bring down the numbers of babies in prison. These children have rights that are being ignored by our criminal justice system and it is time for something to be done about it. Mothers and babies form essential emotional attachments during the first eighteen months of a child’s life, so it is vital mothers in prison are given the opportunity to form these bonds. We owe it to these innocent victims of circumstance.