May 17, 2019


More and more babies and toddlers are living with their mums in prison. But are we doing enough for them?

Jane Rosemary Walker, University of Technology Sydney; Eileen Baldry, UNSW, and Elizabeth Sullivan, University of Newcastle

Women are going to prison at a higher rate than ever in Australia. Our tough sentencing policies sent women to prison at twice the rate of England and Wales in 2018.

At least one in two imprisoned women in Australia has a history of mental illness, and/or abuse as a child.

Indigenous women are over-represented in prisons. They make up more than one-third of Australia’s female prisoner population, but only 3% of our female population as a whole.

Read more:
As we imprison more adults, what’s happening to the children?

One in two imprisoned women are mothers, and 5-10% are pregnant. They desperately want to be with their babies and young children, few of whom will be cared for by their fathers.

When grandparents or other relatives aren’t able to step in, the only option is usually foster care, or, for some mothers, having their child live in prison with them.

In new research published this week, we investigated what Australian prisons are doing to keep mothers and babies together. We looked at the programs on offer, explored policies and principles, and talked to staff and prisoners about their views and experiences.

What does life look like for mothers and children in prison?

The age of children living in prison ranges from newborn to up to five years, but children over three are rare.

Women can apply to have their baby or young child live in prison with them in seven states and territories in Australia, with South Australia the only exception.

We don’t have data that tells us how many young children are living with their mothers in prisons across Australia, but roughly 13 women’s prisons around the country can accommodate children.

Read more:
Australia is locking up too many women but the UK offers a blueprint for a radical new approach

These prisons have rooms set aside, sometimes purpose-built. Most are single-storey houses with space for up to ten mother-child pairs. Each pair has their own bedroom, and shares a living area, kitchen and bathroom with other residents. Women have to work together to clean, buy food and prepare meals.

While this may conjure up images of a student share house, the reality is less palatable.

If your own baby isn’t keeping you awake at night, there’s a good chance somebody else’s baby is. Women in these settings are subject to constant surveillance and commentary on their parenting, while access to necessities otherwise taken for granted, like affordable nappies, isn’t guaranteed.

5%-10% of women in prison are pregnant.
From shutterstock.com

Women distance themselves from each other to avoid trouble. Mother-of-one Jemma says she’s had a difficult life and has been to jail ten times, but having her baby in prison is the hardest thing she’s had to contend with.

[It’s] the biggest thing I’ve ever had to face in my life. Like, it’s one thing to do a long sentence in jail – that’s hard enough – but to do it with a child, even though he’s with me, oh my god. It makes it two times harder.

Despite the struggles, women are relieved and grateful their child is with them, not in the foster care system many of them grew up in. Where most mothers in prison are separated from their kids, they know they’re the lucky ones.

But these women also know it’s seen as a privilege, which they could lose if they “slip up”.

The staff perspective

To get a place in the program, women sign a contract to accept sole responsibility for their child. But officers worry they will be held responsible for children on their watch. They set boundaries using their own parenting values and ideas about risk. Prison officer Vanda said:

If I see something that’s not right […] it’s my responsibly to tell the mother, “Hey, hang on a minute. You’re not doing the right thing. This is how you should be handling the baby.” And we case-note every single thing that they do wrong. So, put it on their file so they know that a few close mishaps, we’ll send the baby out.

We don’t have routine data on how often a baby gets taken away from their mother in prison, but it could happen after a mother fails a drug test, experiences acute mental health problems, or following a series of disciplinary issues.

This might result in the child being placed in the care of a suitable family member, or in foster care.

Read more:
Three charts on: Australia’s booming prison population

Keeping mothers and their babies together is a good thing, but we could do it better

Prisons aren’t intended or equipped to enable young children to thrive. But most women in prison are there for one year or less, and children have the right not to be separated from their parents (unless for their own protection).

Evidence shows the quality of a young child’s bond with their mother or carer affects early social and emotional development. This needs to be weighed up against children’s other rights and interests, and long-term outcomes for children who live in adult prisons, about which little is known.

Governments can do better. Residential programs should include help for when a mother and her child get out of prison, connecting her with services offering social support, health care, economic security, stable accommodation, and a safe environment.

Parenting and life skills development would be well-placed in prison programs, to help women whose childhoods were unstable and whose schooling was cut short.

Read more:
Women who commit violent crimes need programs to help them while in prison

We’re calling for all Australian jurisdictions to work together to address standards, access and equity issues. For example, we need transparent application processes for mothers seeking to bring their children into prison, timely decision-making, and better access to the residential programs for Indigenous women.

International experience shows improvements are possible. In the UK, mother and baby units in prisons have child care plans for all residents. There are policies on child nutrition, and crèche or nursery facilities run by qualified childcare workers.

Scandinavian countries have collaborated to develop Children’s Officers – specially qualified prison officers who understand the needs of mothers and children in prisons. Finland recently recognised the welfare of an imprisoned parent also benefits their child.The Conversation

Jane Rosemary Walker, Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney; Eileen Baldry, Professor of Criminology, UNSW, and Elizabeth Sullivan, Deputy Head of the Faculty of Health and Medicine, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

  • I think that it depends on alot of factors, but as much as I think mums and babies need to be together, I just don’t know if behind prison gates is the right place for a young child to be.


  • A bond between mother and baby is very important. If they are going to have babies in prison there needs to be segregated purpose built areas for them to be housed In. I would still be concerned tho whether it is a good environment for a child. There also needs to be parenting classes for all aspects of child rearing and greater support for all prisoners upon realise. I think the determination for factors of whether or not a baby is to be housed with its mother in prison comes down to the type of crime committed.


  • This isn’t black and white so many different factors. Crime committed, sentence, age of child, alternative carers etc. Research should be high on the list of priorities.


  • This is a really tough one. There is no doubt that the bond between mother and child is very important, but is it a good environment for the child? I hope many more studies are done on this issue.


  • According to the article Scandinavian countries seem to be progressive and if mums and babies together is the best outcome for them it has to be a good program. Specifically trained guards is of course clever and again progressive.


  • Yes, there should be special programs and facilities to accommodate this. These women need a lot of help and coaching to learn to care and love on their babies.


  • Yes they should if it is a year maybe 2 year sentence or at least if they are breast feeding. They need to create or maintain there bond with mum.


  • Tough subject, but I don’t think babies/ kids should be kept in prison


  • It’s a hard topic. I dont think its a place for kids but yet again I would never want to be apart from my child


  • know at prisons in SA newborns can stay with their Mum while being breastfed. I know of one case where the baby stayed with Mum in prison for 6 months then the Dad was given full custody while she was in prison.


  • Oh gee this is a difficult one. No good answer here.


  • I’m not sure how I feel about this one. I can see some reasons why yes but plenty of reasons why no as well.


  • What a horrible situation. My first reaction would be that kids should have another chance in life and not grow up in prison. What if they believe that that is “normality”? And if the mothers don’t get enough support, are they actually being a good or a bad example for their kids?
    But then I think about mothers forcefully separated by their kids. How they suffer, how the kids suffer too. And then I don’t know. :-(
    Also being pregnant while in prison must be so hard. :-(


  • Babies and toddlers are probably better with their mums unless there is a risk to the child. In regards to staffing, what would be good if there could be a mentoring system where volunteers could go into the prison once or twice a week to assist or give advice, etc. Maybe a course like cert. 3 in child care could be something to be considered as an option for the mums to do. I like what the Scandinavian countries are doing in regards to have special qualified prison officers in place.


  • While I agree that the mother/child bond would be strained if they are separated, especially when the kids are young, I’m not sure being in prison is the best option either. Firstly, if the mum is in prison, is she really a responsible role model for her child? And what about the safety of these kids, they could be used for personal gain by others or accidentally get caught up in a fight. If fostering is the only other option……..I just can’t say. I’m glad I was never in the position of losing my kids though


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