Women go to jail more often in Australia than ever. Our severe punishment imposed women twice in prison in England and Wales in 2018.
At least one in two women in Australia has a history of mental illness and / or abuse as a child.
Indigenous women are over-represented in prisons. They represent more than a third of the Australian female prisoner population, but only 3% of our female population as a whole.
As we lock up more adults, what happens to the children?
One in two women in prison is a mother and 5-10% are pregnant. They want to be desperate with their babies & young children, few of whom will be cared for by their fathers.
If grandparents or other family members cannot get in, the only option is usually foster care or, for some mothers, having their child in prison.
In new research published this week, we investigated what Australian prisons are doing to keep mothers and babies together. We looked at the programs offered, explored policies and principles, and spoke with staff and prisoners about their views and experiences.
What is life like for mothers and children in prison?
The age of children living in prison varies from newborn to a maximum of five years, but children older than three are rare.
Women can apply to have their baby or young child stay with them in seven states and territories in Australia, with South Australia the only exception.
We have no data to tell us how many young children live with their mothers in prisons throughout Australia, but about 13 women's prisons across the country can accommodate children.
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These prisons have set rooms apart, sometimes specially built. Most are single-storey houses with space for up to ten pairs of mother-child. Each couple has its own bedroom and shares a living room, kitchen and bathroom with other residents. Women must work together to clean, buy food, and prepare meals.
Although this can evoke images of a student house, the reality is less tasty.
If your own baby does not keep you awake & # 39; at night, there is a good chance that the baby will belong to someone else. Women in these settings are constantly supervised and comment on their upbringing, while access to things deemed necessary, such as affordable diapers, is not guaranteed.
Women distance themselves from each other to prevent problems. One-to-one Jemma says she has had a difficult life and been imprisoned ten times, but having her baby in prison is the hardest thing she has been dealing with.
[It’s] the biggest thing I have ever encountered in my life. It is one thing to do a long sentence in jail – that is hard enough – but to do it with a child, even though he is with me, oh my god. It makes it twice as difficult.
Despite the struggle, women are relieved and grateful that their child is with them, not in the foster care system where many of them grew up. While most mothers in prison are separated from their children, they know they are the lucky ones.
But these women also know that it is seen as a privilege, that they could lose if they & # 39; throw away & # 39 ;.
The personnel perspective
To get a place in the program, women sign a contract to be the only one to accept responsibility for their child. But agents are concerned that they are being held responsible for wary children. They set limits based on their own parenting values and ideas about risks. Prison officer Vanda said:
If I see something that is not right […] it's my responsibility to tell the mother, "Hey, wait a minute. You're not doing the right thing. This is how you handle the baby." And we notice every thing they do wrong. So put it in their file so that they know there are some good accidents, and we'll send the baby out.
We do not have routine data on how often a baby is taken into prison from its mother, but it can happen after a mother has failed a drug test, has acute psychological problems, or has followed a series of disciplinary problems.
This can lead to the child being placed in the care of a suitable family member or in a foster family.
Three graphs: the explosive growth of the prison population in Australia
It's good to keep mothers and their babies together, but we can do better
Prisons are not intended or equipped to allow young children to flourish. But most women in prison are there for a year or less, and children have the right not to be separated from their parents (except for their own protection).
Research shows that the quality of a young child's bond with his mother or caregiver influences early social and emotional development. This must be balanced against the other rights and interests of children and the long-term outcomes for children living in adult prisons, about which little is known.
Governments can do better. Residential programs must provide assistance for when a mother and her child come out of jail, linking them to services that provide social support, health care, economic security, stable accommodation and a safe environment.
Parenting and life skills development would be well placed in the prison programs to help women whose childhood was unstable and whose education was shortened.
Women who commit violent crimes need programs to help them in prison
We insist that all Australian jurisdictions work together to address standards, access and equity issues. For example, we need transparent application procedures for mothers who want to have their children in prison, timely decision-making and better access to residential programs for indigenous women.
International experience shows that improvements are possible. In the United Kingdom, mother and baby units in prisons have childcare plans for all residents. There is a policy on infant nutrition and crèches or daycare centers that are managed by qualified childcare workers.
Scandinavian countries have worked together to develop children's officials – specially qualified prison officers who understand the needs of mothers and children in prisons. Finland recently acknowledged that the well-being of a detained parent also benefits their child.