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‘Pregnancy is a time bomb’ – what I learned about motherhood working in a women’s prison


Prison is full of mothers. Mothers of adult children, who visit at weekends bringing grandchildren in tow; mothers whose motherhood is on pause because their children are being looked after by foster families; mothers whose mothers are doing the mothering for them – an army of grans and nanas collecting children from school and footing bills for food and clothes; and mothers whose children, passed from pillar to post by the care system, have followed in their footsteps and live just up the corridor.

There are also, often, mothers-to-be. Pregnancy seems to happen more rapidly in prison, as though life is hurtling towards the surface faster than anyone could prepare.

I worked in a prison as a teacher and chaplaincy assistant for two years, and continue to work with the women I met there on the other side of the gate. I helped run an inclusion project, a gateway into education or employment for those whose mental health, behaviour or disabilities meant they could not join mainstream education or go into prison employment in the kitchens, gardens or sewing shop like most women in prison do. We were a haven for the socially anxious, emotionally bottled-up, post-traumatic and those with attention deficit disorder or new to prison.

I’m not blind to the fact that you don’t go to prison for doing good things. There were lots of people we invested so much in and they chose to go back to drugs, and there were people we trusted whom we shouldn’t have. But have you noticed what we tend to do when we want to make a case for someone? Characterise them as blameless: hardworking and charming, but “down on their luck”, like Oliver Twist. It is as though it is behaving “properly” that entitles people to adequate support and provision rather than deserving it by virtue of being our fellow humans.

Motherhood is revered in prison in a different way to outside. I imagine it being similar to nationality. Day to day, being British is an insignificant fact to me; I only notice it if I’m in a different country that doesn’t serve milk with tea, or set much store by queuing. Likewise motherhood, which on the outside is par for the course, inside burns all the more fiercely for its physical absence, and springs out continuously in conversations, carried photos, keenly anticipated visits and deep longing.

Pregnant women were therefore treated with great respect and their comfort became a communal matter. Other residents opened doors for them and saved them the Penguin bars from their lunchpacks. If it was thought that they had not received the proper healthcare treatment, the full wing shared outrage. Staff treated pregnant residents with greater leeway – they were, after all, carrying someone that was in prison without any charges.

In a way, pregnant residents might be considered lucky. One of the main punishments of prison is that you are separated from your family. At least when you are pregnant, your two-person, almost-family remains together, unaffected by the confines of the visiting hall and not requiring permission from any authority.

And not everyone is separated at birth. If your baby is expected during a short sentence, then you can apply for transfer to a mother-and-baby unit. These are more like hostels than prisons. You can’t leave, but you are able to live in a supported environment with your baby. They are tight on places, though, so the authorities have to be convinced you are going to be able to keep the baby permanently after you leave.

In other cases, a family member might collect the baby once it has been born, while the mother heads back to the prison from hospital to resume her sentence. For those who had long sentences and no available family, there was voluntary adoption, or even temporary fostering so the decision could be taken later.

But for those who faced involuntary adoption – where the decision to separate mother and child was made by social services – pregnancy was a time bomb. And if you were in the clasp of addiction, had a long sentence to serve or faced ongoing domestic violence, this wasn’t uncommon. For this group, their pregnancy may have been the longest opportunity they would have to spend with their child.

I had a few pregnant women in my classes. Irene spent her pregnancy inside the prison, but gave birth a week before she was due to leave. Interim care was easily found before she could begin the more official proceedings with social services after her release. Zoe’s baby was collected by an aunt until they could be reunited and begin the same process.

But then there was Paige. I’m not sure if it’s hindsight that has increased her presence in my memories, or if she would always have loomed so large in them, but I remember her all the same. She was in my class only for a few weeks. She sewed and talked a little of baby names and about her plan to go to a mother-and-baby unit for the rest of her two-year sentence, but was mostly very quiet. For some, it is immediately obvious that a transfer is not going to happen, but Paige was one of the participants of an in-house skills programme. She was engaging with courses to overcome problems around mental health and addiction and learn coping mechanisms. This meant that her being accepted into a mother-and-baby unit wasn’t as unlikely as it could have been. There was a ray of hope.

After she moved on to a different course, I didn’t see much of her, but our little team thought of her often, and wished her well as we saw her plodding her way to the dining hall or to healthcare appointments. “Not long now!”

Paige’s experience was a well-trodden road within the prison system, but I think the reason she was so often in my thoughts was because her pregnancy ran in parallel with the first pregnancy I had experienced. Not mine – pregnant staff are retired to desk jobs – but my cousin Jo’s. Her baby was the first one I had noted growing from grape to orange to grapefruit. I suspect that is why I kept thinking of Paige’s little baby and wondering what size fruit it was too. I wondered whether she would be allowed to keep the baby. Whether it would be fostered temporarily or adopted. Whether she would be successful in applying to a unit. I knew that, up until the birth, social workers would continue to pay Paige visits and weigh up that impossibly difficult decision.

Just as on the outside, maternity leave in prison is marked by a pause in employment. (There is also sick leave and retirement.) So, in the run-up to the birth, the chapel sent Paige colouring sheets to try to help fill the gaps in her day. I was optimistic about her chances, but I was still quite green then and had yet to watch a new mother return empty-handed after a birth.

I kept my ears open for news of Paige as much as I waited for news of Jo. Paige was first, as expected – and taken to the same hospital as I knew Jo would go to.

Then, a few days later, she was suddenly back. “She didn’t get to keep it,” Sam, who had been in my class the same time as Paige, relayed bluntly. She had seen it before. “It happened with Erica last year. She got a few days with him because they need your milk to wean him off the methadone, and then they sent her back with something to dry up the milk that kept coming.”

It was the exact opposite, I thought, of everything I knew about how a baby should arrive. Although I had no right to feel the sadness as my own, it stayed with me. I wondered whether I should ask her about the baby when I saw her – if she’d had a boy and what name she had chosen – or whether it would cause her too much pain to remember the details.

A day later, as the staff pressed thumbs against fingerprint scanners to collect our keys at the prison gate, we were met by a death-in-custody notice taped to the notice board, telling us that Paige had died.

It was the worst day I can remember. Crying residents collected in the corridor. The officers, who usually moved people on quickly, let everyone linger. In class, we made flower-covered tributes to be stuck to the door of Paige’s cell, where her body, still full of birth hormones, had been found.

I thought of Paige again recently, on my wedding day, when I was with Jo and her gorgeous, happy little boy. He is now a wriggling two year old. Jo cooed over him in his mustard-yellow jacket with the Thomas the Tank Engine buttons, and smothered him with kisses and compliments about what a wonderful page boy he would be. She was sure that he could throw rose petals better than anyone else.

I hope that Paige’s child knows that he was just as loved, too.

Some names have been changed.

This is an edited extract from Jailbirds by Mim Skinner, which will be published by Seven Dials on 30 May.

Source: TheGuardian