Prison Mother and Baby Units in England and Wales

Women who give birth in prison or mothers with a child under the age of 18 months can apply to stay in a mother and baby unit (MBU) in 1 of the 6 prisons.

The MBUs are in a separate part of the prison and are designed to be a safe place where a mother can look after her child with supervision. The aim is to establish and maintain a bond between mother and child, in line with evidence that a key psychological process of attachment takes place between babies and their primary caregiver in the first six to seven months of life, which influences the later development. MBUs are supported by trained prison staff and nursery nurses throughout the stay to teach mothers new skills for when they are released such as cooking and caring for their babies.

Out of twelve prisons in England and Wales there are six with a mother and baby unit.

  • Bronzefield
  • Eastwood Park
  • Styal
  • New Hall
  • Peterborough
  • Askham Grange

With an estimated 17,000 women in the criminal justice system thought to be mothers, places on an MBU are highly sought after. There are limited number of spaces with only a 64 mother and 70 baby spaces which means that many applications are rejected.

Many women admitted to prison have their babies cared for by relatives. Other babies are taken into care by social services where the mother is considered unfit because of violent behaviour, drug use or neglect of previous children.

But if a woman can prove by repeated testing that she is drug-free, and is deemed not to be a danger to her baby or other women, she can apply to move from any prison to one of the six MBUs.

The process to apply for a place can be long and complex which means that the mother and child/ren can be separated for a long time before a decision is made. Even in the unlikely event that a mother is granted a place, you can only look after your child until they are 18 months old.

Lucy Frazer QC MP and Minister for Prisons and Probation addresses this issue in the 2020 Review of operational policy on pregnancy, mother and baby units and maternal separation, stating that she wants to speed up decision-making, suggesting that to introduce it before sentencing will mean that mother and child are not separated for too long.

The number of places and facilities are just not enough. Many women are losing their children, some being jailed for petty crimes, which in turn can be devastating, leading to mental health problems, repeat offending and general contempt and mistrust in authority.

“It’s hard to get into this unit,” says Emma. “When I first came to Eastwood Park they made clear on the juvenile wing that my behaviour had to be spotless if I wanted to get a place here. That meant not getting into arguments with anyone, which is hard when you are cooped up with a load of other women in such a small space. You can see that from watching Big Brother. People fall out about anything.”

According to a number of studies, women are far more likely to self-harm and commit suicide in prison than men. The alarming rise in self-harm and suicide during the COVID pandemic due to prolonged isolation and reduced (sometimes non-existent) visitation proves the devastating effects of women not being able to see their families.

COVID-19 outbreak has had a detrimental impact on prisoners. By June 2020, children had not been able to visit their mother in prison and the 13 children residing with their mother in MBUs have not seen anyone outside of the prison.

Lack of visitation during the pandemic has now been reported to be a breach of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act which states that a child has the right to family life; and Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child (1989) which states that a child should be protected by the state from discrimination or punishment for the activities of its parents. It is also argued that this is a breach when children are not being considered during the sentencing of its mother.

There is a major review of policy concerning women and children within the criminal justice system. The new Operational Guidance on Pregnancy, Mother and Baby Units and Mothers in Prison Policy Framework will set out mandatory actions and act as minimum operating standards for staff within Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).

Proposals within the Review of operational policy on pregnancy, mother and baby units and maternal separation, includes raising awareness of MBUs; specific training of prison staff; introducing Pregnancy and Mother and Baby Liaison Officers; clarity of the roles of agencies caring for mother and child; and financial help. Although COVID has delayed implementing any changes to policy frameworks, issues which have arisen during the pandemic have been highlighted, and will be taken into consideration before implementation.

The state of care and support of mothers and their children in prison has been mostly neglected until recently with the care and management of women and their children in prison being complex and confusing. The implementation of policy and guidance frameworks proposed by the government will introduce more adequate conditions enabling women to move away from crime and reduce the amount of children who are affected by their time within the criminal justice system.

About the Author

Michelle Conway

Full-time student studying a BSc Forensic and Criminal Psychology degree, experience both in and out of the CJS being a young offender, spending time in a female prison (20+ years ago), recently volunteered on placements working with offenders. Mother to three young men and enjoy bellydancing and all genres of music. Believes in equality, education and living life to the fullest.

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