Australia: babies and toddlers are living with their mums in prison, we need to look after them better

Women are going to prison at a higher rate than ever in Australia. Our tough sentencing policies sent women to prison at twice the rate of England and Wales in 2018.

At least one in two imprisoned women in Australia has a history of mental illness, and/or abuse as a child.

Indigenous women are over-represented in prisons. They make up more than one-third of Australia’s female prisoner population, but only 3% of our female population as a whole.

One in two imprisoned women are mothers, and 5-10% are pregnant. They desperately want to be with their babies and young children, few of whom will be cared for by their fathers.

When grandparents or other relatives aren’t able to step in, the only option is usually foster care, or, for some mothers, having their child live in prison with them.

In new research published this week, we investigated what Australian prisons are doing to keep mothers and babies together. We looked at the programs on offer, explored policies and principles, and talked to staff and prisoners about their views and experiences.

What does life look like for mothers and children in prison?

The age of children living in prison ranges from newborn to up to five years, but children over three are rare.

Women can apply to have their baby or young child live in prison with them in seven states and territories in Australia, with South Australia the only exception.

We don’t have data that tells us how many young children are living with their mothers in prisons across Australia, but roughly 13 women’s prisons around the country can accommodate children.

These prisons have rooms set aside, sometimes purpose-built. Most are single-storey houses with space for up to ten mother-child pairs. Each pair has their own bedroom, and shares a living area, kitchen and bathroom with other residents. Women have to work together to clean, buy food and prepare meals.

While this may conjure up images of a student share house, the reality is less palatable.

If your own baby isn’t keeping you awake at night, there’s a good chance somebody else’s baby is. Women in these settings are subject to constant surveillance and commentary on their parenting, while access to necessities otherwise taken for granted, like affordable nappies, isn’t guaranteed.

Women distance themselves from each other to avoid trouble. Mother-of-one Jemma says she’s had a difficult life and has been to jail ten times, but having her baby in prison is the hardest thing she’s had to contend with.

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