Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Babies behind bars

THE first thing that strikes you about Tracey's room is that it doesn't look like a prison cell.
It's small, yes, but it certainly isn't the bare, cold hole of your imagination. Instead, it is actually cosy. And extremely neat.
Rows of tiny baby singlets are neatly stacked in the shelves beside the nappies, powders, creams and other paraphernalia required by new mothers. There is an adult's bed beside a wooden cot which is covered in colourful bed linen.
A noticeboard displays more photographs of children, a baby and a boy. In a corner baby toys are scattered on a pink rug.
Tracey – not her real name – doesn't look much older than a child herself but she says she is 28. She's holding the five-month-old baby girl she gave birth to in prison. Her first child, a son, aged 9, lives with family outside the prison.
In two weeks she will leave the Womans correctional centre after serving eight months of an 11-month sentence. It's not how she pictured bringing her second child into the world but, she says, in her matter of fact way, "you have to make the most of a bad situation".
"Being here has its good and bad points, that's for sure," Tracey says. "But I think I am privileged to have my baby in here with me. It's not what I would have wanted but this has been an opportunity to bond. It's been amazing. And we don't go without – we have everything we need. She is not lacking in anything except family and they come to see her on the weekend. Like I said, I try to make the most of a bad situation."
Just a few minutes earlier Tracey and seven other inmates were sitting in a circle singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat and playing peek-a-boo with scarves.
Six of the women are mothers with children in the prison, the other two are pregnant and will probably give birth during their prison term. It's noisy, light-hearted and bizarrely normal. It's only when you lift your eyes away from the children's happy faces that you can glimpse the barbed wire of the prison perimeter through the windows.
Watching on is the general manager.It's her job to keep an eye on everything that goes on in this high security prison which, at capacity, can hold 235 women. On the day of our visit the prison is at full capacity, with 118 inmates in the residential section where the women and babies units are located. This is a low-risk part of the prison where the inmates live in a semi-autonomous environment. They cook and clean for themselves and it is generally their last port of call before their release back into the community.
But it is still part of a high security prison and all visitors are carefully screened for drugs and potential weapons. The women's cells are inspected daily and they are constantly counted.
It was after the general manager returned from maternity leave late last year that she decided to develop a proper program for mothers and babies at the Correctional Centre.
"The program has been growing over the past four years but I don't know if I returned to work last year with a renewed focus on babies because I had just had one or whether it was just coincidental but I sat down one night at home and tried to work out what we should be doing for mothers and babies."
The result is a new mixed program whichis a leader in the way it deals with inmates with children.
So, on Monday afternoons, the women and their children attend a Happy Healthy Children program, which provides education on child care and development. On Tuesday mornings they go to Sing and Grow, an early intervention and prevention music therapy project conducted at the centre by Playgroup Queensland. On Friday morning they have playgroup which is attended by mothers and resident children and external pre-school age kids whose mums are in custody.

As well as these programs, the women have access to ante- and postnatal care where they can be treated at a 24-hour clinic, four midwives, specialists and doctors. There also is a methadone program for pregnant mothers experiencing substance abuse problems.
The main aim of all this care and attention is to encourage a strong bond between mother and child.The general managers motives in doing so are only partly altruistic. She is a mother and she knows how crucial bonding is for the happiness of both parties. However, as a prison manager her aim is to decrease recidivism.
She ardently believes that if a mother has bonded with her child she will make that child's happiness a priority and never return to prison.
"We are doing this because the stronger the attachment to the baby then anything else in a mother's life has less of an impact.General manager says having a baby behind bars is not the optimum place to raise a child but for some women it can be safer for themselves and their progeny.
"Anecdotally my experience is the circumstances the children experience out in the community can be worse that being in custody with their mother," she says.
"I have had mums tell me that if they left their children in a voluntary arrangement in the community the choice is between a friend who shoots up drugs in front of the child or one that goes to the bedroom and shoots up. Doing that is leaving a child in fairly risky circumstances. At least here they are with their mother, they have access to shelter and a safe environment."
The shelter for mums and babies in prison is a specially designed unit which houses four inmates. It has a kitchen, a communal shower, a lounge area and a spare room which can be used for storage, time out. On this day it is being used as a mini-laundry, a drying rack standing on the dining room table which has been pushed into a sunny corner. There is a communal area with a treat – a soft lounge suite. These are not allowed in any other part of the prison. There is a television in this room and in every woman's room. Strangely, they are all on when we enter the empty unit. The kitchen is functional if dull. The eyes lock on a large knife chained to the wall. These are close quarters indeed for four women and their children. There are two of these units at the correctional faciity which gives them room for eight mothers and their children. At the moment there are six with the children aged from 11 weeks to two and a half years.


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