Mothers and babies in prison: It's complicated

Helen Crewe
Tuesday, 24 November 2020

It is surprising that the conditions for babies in prison have remained unchanged for around 200 years. 

The first known baby in prison was Henry Kable Junior, born in an English prison, Norwich Castle Gaol in February 1786. He lived with his mother in Norwich Castle Gaol until he and his parents were all transported to Australia.

Babies can be accommodated by prisons to live with their mothers from new-born in many countries across the world. In fact, Norway is the only country that does not allow new-borns, babies 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.

The age limit of children is different throughout the world and there is a lack of consistency with the treatment of this minority population. Mother and baby units (MBUs) are presented as a solution in the majority of countries, however these living arrangements are not always in the best interests of children.

England has the largest number of female prisons in Europe. Within the prison estate there are six prisons that have a special MBU. This was confirmed in the recent policy document published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Two MBUs within the two private prisons are managed by different contractors. HMP Bronzefield and HMP Peterborough were purpose built private prisons and have run according to PFI contracts since 2005. These contracts have been criticised for not ensuring value for money and in prisons there have been problems such as a high turnover of staff, low pay, and in-experienced staff.

Changing Policy for Babies in Prison

The COVID-19 pandemic is a period where no one issue stands alone and can be described as a globally uncertain time for humanity. Despite this unusual context, the UK government produced a policy document that recommends changes for mother and baby units, including an extension of separation between baby and mothers from 18 months to two years. There are three main shortcomings from this recent policy review by the MoJ. These are:

  • The exclusion of Scottish expertise
  • Missing research that criticised the role of mother and baby units
  • A failure to mention a recent court case by the Howard League

First, a notable exclusion from the recent MoJ review is the work of stakeholders from Scotland. In 2014, a document produced by the NSPCC and Barnardo’s presented six recommendations relating to the management and work of MBUs in the UK and devolved governments. This reported some of the detrimental effects of prison MBUs for the health and well-being of infants and highlighted the need for data sharing on a local and national scale, including the devolved governments within the UK.

An explanation for the exclusion of these recommendations could point to the current political climate in the UK that consists of a range of contested issues such as the UK preparing to leave the European Union as well as tensions with Scotland over its independence.

In the absence of data, the literature review produced by the MoJ was significant for their evaluation of the management and provision by the range of staff, including contracted workers from the penal voluntary sector. The main focus within this literature review and subsequent consultations with stakeholders concerned women as offenders or mothers, rather than their babies who live with them. This focus meant literature relating to babies appears to have been disregarded.

In particular a crucial piece of research conducted by Liza Catan and published by the Home Office in 1989 was missed from the literature review. Catan's research is the only study that has been conducted in English female prisons and focused on the well-being of babies. It was conducted within MBUs and assessed the physical as well as mental development of babies. It found that babies who spent longer than average in the MBU suffered with declined developmental performance.

It is significant that in May 2020 the Howard League for Penal Reform reported that they had been successful in releasing a young mother and her baby after taking her case to the court of appeal. The MoJ policy review announced that 17 babies were resettled with their mothers during the COVID-19 crisis. It did not include the Howard League as a stakeholder, despite this organisation being involved with the All Parliamentary Group on Women which was chaired by Baroness Corston who published an influential report with recommendations for the reduction of women in prison.


There is a need to reconsider evidence, what matters to the futures of babies and what is seen as legitimate evidence as well as how this is translated in practice. Alternative economic frameworks exist that have been actively promoted as one of reducing levels of imprisonment by diverting expenditures from prisons to fund services in communities. The justice reinvestment model has had some promising results in several jurisdictions around the world. This alternative economic model is currently a concept for activists and criminologists to actively engage in shaping emergent meanings and practices.

There is a need to start a new conversation about babies in prison. This population is voiceless and by keeping silent nothing will be done to change their plight. The most difficult step to resolution is the first one.

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.