[15 February 2008] - An 11-month-old girl who could be spending the next three years at a medium-security prison as her mother serves a manslaughter sentence has unlocked a decades-old debate about whether babies should be raised behind bars.
The grim conditions at most correctional facilities, systemically overcrowded with serious offenders, could leave even the most open-minded questioning the perceived primacy of emotional bonding between mother and child.
So when 35-year-old Lisa Anne Whitford of Prince George, B.C., was sentenced last week to spend the next four years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter for the 2006 shooting death of her live-in companion - and when she was allowed to take along her infant daughter, born while Ms. Whitford was in custody last March - Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day stepped in.
He called for an immediate review of the mother-child program in place at federal institutions across the country to ensure the interests of the child are the program's priority. Further, he said, he was concerned about "the message that is sent to serious offenders when they are permitted to retain custody of a child while incarcerated."
But it's precisely this message - that the government cares about the emotional well-being of inmates - that has led to a quiet change in Canada and elsewhere, giving women the chance to turn their lives around while raising their infants. In many cases, it seems to be working.
Ms. Whitford, according to her lawyer, Bruce Kaun, was abused as a child, raped as a teenager, and lost custody of her three other children while struggling with a criminal past and drug addictions as an adult. It wasn't until Jordyn was born, he said, that she started to change her ways.
"There's nothing left in her life. She has nobody," he said. "Caring for this child gives her a sense of worthfulness, something to live for. She cares so much for this child."
To date, Ms. Whitford has raised Jordyn in a provincial remand centre under the supervision of medical and safety professionals. Now, after a year of fighting off provincial officials who wanted to place the child in foster care, mother and baby will be moving to the federal, medium-security Fraser Valley Institution.
There, Ms. Whitford will be able to raise her daughter in an apartment-like unit with its own kitchen and a park nearby on prison grounds. They will still be surrounded by security fences and monitored by guards and a pediatrician as part of the rarely used federal mother-child program that exists at six federal institutions across the country.
The idea of allowing a woman to keep her baby locked up with her is hardly new.
The first informal prison nursery in Canada was started at the provincial Portage Jail in Portage La Prairie, Man., in the mid-1970s. The head warden at the time, according to Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, would allow women to have their children over for meals and the occasional sleepover. When one of the inmates gave birth while in custody, she was allowed to raise the baby girl in her cell.
The Correctional Service of Canada, the federal agency responsible for managing institutions and administering sentences of two years or more, formally implemented its program in 2001. To qualify for the program, women must undergo a psychological assessment, and children cannot stay past their fourth birthday.
In the United States, the practice dates back to the early 20th century. The nursery program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York was established in 1902 and is the only one from that era that remains open, according to Joseph Carlson, a leading expert on prison nurseries and a law professor at the University of Nebraska. A handful of states in the past 15 years have since modelled their programs after Bedford Hills.
Australia, Brazil, Ecuador, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Russia and Sweden also have versions of the programs, dating back to the 1990s.
The general principle behind them is to give women the chance to build that "critical" relationship with their newborn, said Sarah From of the Women's Prison Association in New York City, something that can give them a heightened sense of responsibility and motivate them to remain law-abiding citizens when they are released.
The eight nursery programs in the United States, which accommodate an average of six children per institution at a time, have had demonstrable benefits, said Prof. Carlson. Only two children were in the Canadian federal system as of December, the CSC said.
According to data Prof. Carlson collected over five years, the recidivism rate for women who were allowed to keep their children with them while they served time was 9 per cent, compared with nearly 34 per cent for women who had children but could not raise them in jail.
"We may not help everybody, but right now we're showing a lot more people helped than hurt," he said. Inmates are also generally calmer when there is a baby in the facility, he said.
What children's rights activists say angers them is that the programs seem to be in place for the benefit of the woman, not the child.
"Children should be raised in a safe, nurturing environment," said Grant Wilson, president of the Canadian Children's Rights Council.
"I don't believe a prison system can do that. I'm revolted to think that a baby will be learning to crawl around inmates."
Mr. Wilson advocates that, ideally, these children be adopted by close relatives, who can help keep the mother in the child's life.
Although bringing a child up in prison might not provide optimal conditions, said Ms. Pate of the Elizabeth Fry Society, the consistency of care provided by the birth mother is better than having the child looked after by a series of foster parents or distant relatives.
Ms. From, the Women's Prison Association spokeswoman, said many of the facilities have made good efforts to ensure they are child-friendly.
"There will be a play area with a colourful rug, there'll be toys," she said.
"So mom knows she's in prison, but for the child, especially a two-year-old, it's not really an institutionalizing experience."
- More on children and Canada
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Last updated 15/02/2008 06:02:58