Mothers, babies and prison: a better future? - RSA

Mothers, babies and prison: a better future?


  • Picture of Helen Crewe FRSA
    Helen Crewe FRSA
  • Criminal justice

Helen Crewe FRSA argues that in some respects the conditions for babies in prison have remained unchanged for around 200 years. The time has come for a humane approach based on evidence about the wellbeing of mothers and babies.

Babies have always been accommodated by female prisons around the world. In fact, Norway is the only country that does not allow new-borns or children in prison.  In Germany young children can legitimately live with their mother in prison until the age of six and in India children up to this age are imprisoned with their mothers without any pre-school education. There is no international agreement for the age limit and a lack of consistency with this minority population. Mother and baby units are presented as the solution in the majority of countries, however, these living arrangements are not always in the best interests of children.  International human rights are specific in that the provision of alternatives to custody for pregnant women or mothers with young children would be more humane.

Conversations by policy-makers academics or prison management about how to deal with babies in prison are not often within the public domain.  In 2020, I published an article about the invisibility of struggles relating to how babies should be accommodated, arguing that this invisibility has led to the status quo remaining. Developments in England and Wales during 2020 raises a number of questions including whether the aim should be having no babies inside prisons. Would this mean removing children and what are the alternatives such as specialist women’s centres? 

Legal Representation

Prior to the policy review by the MoJ, a mother and baby had taken a successful legal case.  In May 2020, the Howard League announced that it had successfully represented a young mother and her baby in the Court of Appeal for a reduced sentence and temporary release from prison. Indeed, the MoJ review document included details about its ‘early release scheme’. 

The case of the MoJ extending the time that babies stay in prison with their mothers and the court case illustrate the complexity of the current situation.  It is clear that whilst there is no discussion about alternatives which are ‘child-centred’, that infants are treated like prisoners.  When they are in mother and baby units, not only are they exposed to well-known health risks, but their release is connected to their mothers’ prison sentence.

Currently, there are no internationally consistent conditions, agreement on the age of separation or discussion about the possible choices for those who are supporting infants living in mother and baby units. Evidence from the UK highlights the difficulty of representing mother and baby units as the answer to this problem.  Dominant concerns are linked to the interests of competing professionals.  Without a public conversation the future of babies in prison will remain. 

More visibility of this problem will help scholars, practitioners as well as policy makers look at the outcomes of sentencing women to prison.  I am hoping that by publicising this within the RSA that there will be a step forward for recognising and reconciling problems for babies in prison in the UK and internationally.

Helen is a researcher, lecturer and writer. Following post-graduate training at Leeds University she became a Global Educator for International Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies and member of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. “No Babies in Prison? - Norway’s Exception Explainedhas been awarded for inclusion in the PsychRN launch as part of its Climate & Environmental Psychology eJournal in Population Psychology.

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