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Innocent victims

Innocent victims

One. That is the number of babies in prison custody with their mother in Scotland as of last week. The pair are housed in the mother and baby unit at HMP Cornton Vale, the country’s largest female establishment until HMP Inverclyde comes on stream in 2017. Indeed, it is unusual for the number to be any higher, despite the average female prison population increasing in all but one of the last ten years.

One, of course, is not an accurate reflection of the number of children that imprisonment has an impact upon. When the last prisoner survey was published some two-and-half-years ago, two-thirds of female prisoners reported having children on the outside compared to half of male prisoners. Four in ten received visits from their children compared to one third of men. If successful reintegration post-release rests in large part on relationships, then that of the mother and child could hardly be more crucial. Brokering a consensus on how that ought to be achieved, however, is arguably a greater challenge.

The unit at Cornton Vale is a cell block like any other, albeit one that has been made “more homely,” says mother and child development worker Diane Cairns, of the Aberlour Child Care Trust, who works within the unit. A utility room where mother and baby’s clothes can be washed is available as well as a full kitchen to promote independent living. Unlike other blocks, a grille gate is not pulled over at lights out. That way, greater freedom of movement within the unit is possible. Meanwhile, a peer support worker is always there to offer a helping hand.

“I think, paradoxically, mum and baby probably get a better start in prison where they get individual attention and lots and lots of support, 24-hour-a-day support, than they would necessarily, perhaps, in the community because mother’s health and mental wellbeing is looked after and the baby gets lots of attention and lots of care too, so it’s actually a very good and very supportive start for both,” says Kate Donegan, who, until last month. was governor of Cornton Vale and is now leading the project team charged with the design and commissioning of Inverclyde.

The rationale for replicating this model at the new Inverclyde prison once it opens is set to come under heightened scrutiny, however. The interim findings of a research project on babies affected by the criminal justice system will be discussed later this week at a Europe-wide conference in Edinburgh on the children of prisoners. The full study, which has been conducted by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), will not be published until September, though the charity’s senior policy researcher in Scotland, Susan Galloway, tells Holyrood an evidence base for mother and baby units within prisons is lacking.

“That is true of Scotland and it is also true of the rest of the UK as well, despite having had mother and baby units and that policy in place since the 1980s,” says Galloway. “Actually, we still do not know whether they are good for babies’ wellbeing and outcomes. One of the really important things that needs to be done is a prospective study of the impact of different care arrangements looking at how babies are cared for in prison and in other alternative forms of care and what produces the best outcomes for babies. We don’t know [at the moment]”.

Seven rooms are available within the unit at Cornton Vale, though Cairns has only ever seen three used at any one time in her three-and-half years working there. Instead, the lion’s share of her day-to-day work is spent working with mothers on parenting capacity and how they interact with their children during visits. Engagement with Cairns is voluntary, though take-up following referral remains high – she is currently working with about 80 women.

Work can be one-to-one – and often is at first or on a drop-in basis – or delivered as part of a group, such as the Mellow Ready pilot – a parenting programme to foster positive relationships – that has just been completed with seven women. Split into eight sessions delivered over two weeks in March, not only were mothers and pregnant women included but young potential mothers too as part of a stronger emphasis on preventative efforts.

“This programme, although it was based on a parenting programme and parenting for the future, it was also very much based on relationship building and building self-esteem and self-efficacy,” says Liz Nolan, area manager covering the service for Aberlour. “That is something that we are going to have evaluated and hopefully it’s something that could be rolled out throughout the SPS.”

One more immediate avenue open to exploration is the structure that visits take. Here, Cornton Vale is unique in that the prison allows private two-hour ‘Cherub’ visits between mother and baby away from the typical visit room. “It is a fantastic resource that is probably under used,” says Cairns, citing strict eligibility criteria, such as the ability to provide clean drug tests, which has to be met to allow unsupervised contact. “If they lived locally, they could have a Cherubs visit every single day. We currently have a baby travelling from Glasgow with social work for three visits a week then at the weekends, that baby is also coming up to have the visit with the mother in the visit room. Some people might frown upon that but it has worked so well that we’re now looking at that mother getting access to the baby in the mother and baby unit, so it’s about looking at other ways of ensuring that that rehabilitation programme is working for both mum and, particularly, for baby.”

In all European countries other than the UK, some form of private family visit is possible, such as overnight visits for children with their mothers in prison, Families Outside, a national charity that works with the families of those within the criminal justice system, told the Commission on Women Offenders as part of its evidence gathering. “We certainly see more room for development in terms of having more normal contact between families and it has been very successful pretty much everywhere else but it has not been a step that the UK as a whole has quite been willing to take,” chief executive, Professor Nancy Loucks, tells Holyrood.

“Certainly having facilities for children to have more normal contact with their mums, a situation where they can stay the night, where they can prepare a meal together and eat together, helps make that transition easier when people finally come out. Private family visits are very much a way of preparing someone for release and, to be honest, I feel safer in a community where agencies have done everything they can to prepare someone for release than in a place where they are completely shut off and then suddenly expected to cope in the world outside. It is just not realistic.”

Low Moss, which opened two years ago and works with adult male convicted and remand prisoners, runs a homework club, for instance, where fathers can help their children with schoolwork. Going one step further and allowing overnight visits for children with their mothers in prison is likely to trigger a much more divisive debate. “We have certainly been looking at other jurisdictions who permit overnight stays of children with their mothers but if we were to go in that direction, it would clearly have to be extremely carefully risk-assessed because the protection of the child is critical,” says Donegan. “But other jurisdictions have found that there is a lot to be gained by doing that. It is something that we certainly wouldn’t rule out but it does require very careful consideration.”

Discrepancies when it comes to children do exist within the prison population. Female prisoners, for instance, have reported less positively than male prisoners (57 per cent compared to 73 per cent) on facilities for children at visits. Disparities are equally as pronounced within the female prison population itself. Cornton Vale fairs particularly poorly with its 51 per cent satisfaction rate compared to 71 per cent and 73 per cent, at Greenock and Edinburgh respectively.

Scottish Prison Service (SPS) management will be keen to see that gap narrow when results from the latest prisoner survey are published in a few weeks time, given the significant investment in Cornton Vale after Dame Elish Angiolini’s report. The opening of a family centre and help hub at the Stirling-based establishment eight months ago – featuring indoor and outdoor play areas for children, access to family contact officers and information on services provided by third sector or local authorities – has been a notable part of that capital injection and one that Donegan intends to replicate at Inverclyde.

“It is extremely difficult when the women are there on remand or for very short sentences because… you need to establish a relationship and a trust with the prisoner first and foremost, and then, in a short period of time, connecting with the family in a meaningful kind of way is virtually impossible,” says Donegan. “Which is why when visitors come into the establishment and go into the visit area, that process should be one in which families feel comfortable and feel able to approach us for information, for advice, for guidance in terms of what they need to be doing, and it also gives us an opportunity to inform them about how prison works and what they can expect for their brother, for their sister, for their mother, whoever it happens to be. The whole visitor experience is a very important one for both sides.”

Donegan and her team at SPS are now at the final design stage for Inverclyde with invitations to tender for the establishment due to go out in October this year. A greater focus on communal living and freedom of movement within the establishment will be sought, with more active use of ICT than has historically been the case. Calls to encourage greater contact between mother and child online, most recently by the new head of the Mental Welfare Commission in Scotland, continue to be made as a means to maintain relationships. “The video conferencing facilities have been used for court appearances and for contact with lawyers, and that will be extended I hope, in the not too distant future, to virtual visits with families,” Donegan tells Holyrood. “We anticipate by the time [that] Inverclyde opens it will be routine for those women whose families can’t get to them or are some distance [away]. It is a great idea and certainly worth extending.”

This is not about replacing face-to-face contact, says Donegan, rather facilitating another means of supporting relationships. That said, the SPS cannot escape claims that efforts within the new prison, once complete, will ultimately be undermined by its national status. As well as Inverclyde, women will be held at two other establishments, one in the east and another in the north, a compromise that critics remain unimpressed with having seen the emphasis Angiolini, and the Corston Report that preceded it, placed on smaller, locally based units.

“We were in contact with a family [where] the lady was serving her time in Edinburgh and was going to have to go back to Cornton Vale to complete some offending behaviour programmes that were required for her parole application,” explains Loucks. “But she was going to have to make a choice between doing that for her parole application or seeing her family on a regular basis, which is what she was able to do at Edinburgh because they weren’t able to travel as far as Cornton Vale. She was seriously considering delaying her parole in order to maintain contact with her family and people shouldn’t have to have to make those choices. And that’s what we do when we have a large central facility, which in Inverclyde isn’t even central. It’s going to be quite difficult for people to reach and that’s putting people in a very difficult position.”

Donegan insists the set-up and a revised women offenders’ strategy, which is in the process of receiving final endorsement at SPS board level, will allow for greater flexibility than is claimed. “We are where we are and so we have to make the best of the situation that we’re in,” she says. “But we can be very flexible with the female population so if, for example, someone commits an offence in the central region, in Glasgow, and ends up in Inverclyde but maybe comes from the north, we can really be flexible within the system, so she could be transferred to Grampian to receive visits there before coming back. The whole idea is that women will be located as close as possible to their families and will come to Inverclyde, to the national part, as it were, of Inverclyde, to get any specialist interventions that they might need. But the presumption will be that they will stay in the prison closest to their communities.”

As for the children living on the outside, NSPCC are calling for babies affected by parental involvement in the criminal justice system to be formally identified nationally and locally as a vulnerable group by universal health services. “That is not the case in most places at the moment and, if it was required, we think that you would start to see the development of the kind of support that carers need. Children that are affected by parental imprisonment are a kind of invisible group but babies, and especially their emotional needs, are even more so,” says Galloway.

Angiolini’s commission stopped short of recommending child and family impact assessments within the criminal justice process, though Families Outside, among others, continues to make the case for use at the point of custody. “What we still don’t have is a consistent method that prison staff take at the point of reception where they’re asking about children and about any immediate concerns that people might have or what the impact might be on those children,” says Loucks. “Cornton Vale, at one point, was asking women at induction, which is once they have been sentenced [and] once they have been in prison for a while, about their children and [at] the core screen, which is a tool that is used to assess prisoners when they come into custody which is conducted within 72 hours, they ask about any concerns about childcare. But that’s not quite the same question and it is not as immediate as the point of reception. We need to be looking earlier, I think it needs to be asked of everyone, and I think we need to find out what happens to that information once they have it, so that those supports are in place from the very earliest possible moment.”

Holyrood understands a private members’ bill, seeking to formally flag up children of school age that are affected by imprisonment, will be brought forward at the Scottish Parliament with a view to ensuring that any additional support they may require is then made available. The intention is to do so before summer recess.

“It simply isn’t good enough for us to say as a society that children are some sort of collateral damage of parents’ offending,” says sentencing expert Dr Cyrus Tata, Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Strathclyde. “We have to take responsibility for the impact on children. Children are the innocent party in all of this and we cannot simply wash our hands and say, too bad. That would be socially irresponsible and ultimately, quite cruel.”

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