Babies behind bars

Thu, April 6, 2006

Tom Brodbeck

The story of Edmonton killer Jessica Bigstone should be a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that allowing mothers to raise their kids in jail is a good idea.

The Doer government announced this week that it's going to allow women inmates to raise their babies behind bars at a new, planned women's jail in Headingley.

It's not a new concept. The federal government has been doing this for years under something called the mother-child program.

It allows female inmates to raise their kids in prison until they're four years old.

It's heralded as a cutting-edge program and praised by all the usual pointy-headed social experts who tell us things like raising kids in prison is a good idea.

Enter Jessica Bigstone who was allowed to care for her newborn at the Edmonton Institution for Women in 2000, three years after she slit another woman's neck from ear-to-ear.

Bigstone was sentenced to just over three years for slashing the throat of a woman at a downtown Edmonton party in 1996.

She was freed on statutory release in 1999 after serving two-thirds of her sentence.

A month later, police found her on a reserve north of Edmonton, drunk and pregnant with her fourth child. She was in violation of her conditions of release and sent back to jail to finish her sentence.

Despite the fact she slit a woman's throat, violated her conditions of release from prison, was drinking while pregnant -- and even lost custody of her first three children prior to her offence -- prison officials decided she was a good candidate for the mother-child program.

And in February, 2000, when her fourth child Jaycee was born in hospital, they let Bigstone take him back to prison with her to start their new life.

It was good "bonding" for the baby and the mother, the experts gushed. And it was an important step forward for mothers in prison.


Jaycee spent his first month behind bars with his mom. And they left together when she was released in the spring of 2000.

"He's going to help me maintain my life, to be able to look after him properly and build a better life for both of us," Bigstone said at the time during an Edmonton Sun interview.

But that's where the fairy tale ends.

Shortly after her release, Bigstone relapsed into her alcohol addiction, tried to commit suicide and lost custody of Jaycee.

And in August 2001, little Jaycee -- at the tender age of a year and a half -- became the permanent ward of Alberta Social Services.

What a great start to this young life.

Things got worse for Bigstone, who incidentally had a fifth child after being released from prison. She was charged with second-degree murder for the killing of her common-law husband in 2002. She also injured her 17-month-old son with a knife.

She pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter and criminal negligence causing bodily harm. She got five more years.

What a train wreck.

Obviously, this is an extreme case. Most women inmates who want to raise their kids behind bars are not violent offenders. But we know these kinds of horror stories can happen.

I don't like the idea at all of moms raising their babies in prison. A jail is no place for little kids, period.

But I'm even more appalled at the fact prison officials would let somebody like Jessica Bigstone care for her infant behind bars with the kind of dysfunctional past and criminal record she had.

It shows where these kind of feel-good programs can end up.

And it scares the hell out of me.