Motherhood in a prison nursery

The experience of researching motherhood in prison has lasted long after I conducted a short-term prison nursery study that consisted of in-depth interviews with incarcerated mothers as well as prison nursery staff. Since then I have very often hoped to return to this subject. Therefore this very first blog post is dedicated to prison nurseries – a surprisingly little known and discussed criminological topic.

The conception of prison nursery (Polish: żłobek przywięzienny) or Prison Mother and Baby Unit (Polish: Dom Matki i Dziecka na terenie zakładu karnego) where mothers-inmates live with their children and perform postnatal care while serving their sentence, reminds an interesting but somehow contentious topic. The nurseries are usually separate prison wards and there are 8 such facilities in England and Wales and 2 in Poland. Although established prison nurseries vary from country to country and the most diverse rule seems to be the child’s upper age limit[1], it is clear that there is a common practice where prison systems currently seek to maintain the mother-child bond despite the mother’s criminal history.

The rationale behind the establishment of prison nurseries is to prevent the mother-child separation and contribute to the development of ‘healthy attachment’. It is believed that setting apart the mother and the newborn baby causes a different type of stress and anxiety than among incarcerated parents whose children are older. Despite prevailing in this case perception of ‘bad’ or ‘unfit’ mothers, for most of the convicted women, being separated from their family is a crucial issue as most of the mothers are the primary carers of their children, and conversely to incarcerated fathers, entering the prison cell entails a concern about custody arrangements for their children. As a consequence, the increasing numbers of ‘prison orphans’ caused to rethink the problem of mothers in prison and create a gender-responsive approach in the form of a prison nursery.

Apart from preserving a ‘mother-child’ bond, prison nurseries are believed to provide a chance of rehabilitation strategy for female offenders that increases mothers’ parenting skills. Furthermore, the institutionalization of motherhood in the form of prison nursery provides many practical opportunities for incarcerated mothers e.g. solving legal and custody issues with regard to children’s fathers.

Nonetheless, the concept of prison nursery has remained morally controversial.  Firstly, the perception of motherhood as life-giving experience and shaping the mother figure is invariably contrasted with the rigid and limited prison environment and women’s status as a mother is regularly compromised. The onus is on mothers to be constantly perfect parent figure. Moreover, this experience is of the collective nature as women’s parenting is hindered by constant observation and control not only by the prison nursery staff but also by their fellow female inmates. Undoubtedly, it is an arduous task to develop proper mothering skills and parenting imagination while coming from a disadvantaged background. It should not be forgotten that these women face a myriad of hardships, including mental health issues, poor education, and years of abuse.

Secondly, the rationale behind the establishment of prison nurseries that aims to create the conditions for incarcerated mothers can be quickly suppressed and forgotten, as one of the unsettling questions that was echoed in the background of my research considered the relationship between punishment and care. Regarding the presence of civilian children, how prison nursery staff should establish the right proportion between prisoner- and parent-centred services? Following this line of thinking  – who actually receives punishment and who care?

Byrne (2005) describes this dilemma as the three C’s attitude: custody – control – care. It is hard to resist the impression that, in the prison nursery context, the dynamic of these three concepts is most of the time disordered. In my research, prison nursery staff expressed that their priority is to remember why these women are in prison and that punishment should be served first. On the other hand, as many of the interviewed women pointed out, their children become their confessors and best friends while incarceration, thus serving punishment to mothers in the first place will affect their children in one form or another.

Although I was lucky to conduct this study in a prison nursery that represented a decent standard of accommodation, I still vividly remember my reaction to the image of playground facilities and a number of buggies while entering the ward. I am still of opinion that the prison nursery research provides an interesting and unique context to examine the relationship between punishment and care, however, parenting behind bars is also one of the greatest examples of how difficult and perplexing the process of such examination is.

 Reference: 

Byrne, M.W. (2005) Conducting Research as a Visiting Scientist in a Women’s Prison. Journal of Professional Nursing, 21(4), 223-230.

[1]The upper age limit for a child to be looked after in a prison nursery varies across countries and quite often each case is considered on its merits, however, in general in England & Wales it is around 18 months and up to 3 years in Poland.

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