Killer to raise baby in prison

Lisa Whitford gave birth in March 2007 while in detention awaiting trial on charges of killing her common-law husband

Gerry Bellett ,  Vancouver Sun

Published: Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Fraser Valley Institute for Women as seen after opening in 2004. A Prince George woman will raise her baby in the prison after she was sentenced to four years incarceration.
Photograph by : Jean Konda-Witte/Abbotsford Times Files

Inmate mom Lisa Anne Whitford, 37, and her daughter, baby Jordyn will serve time together in a federal prison.
Photograph by : Photo supplied by the Prince George Citizen


She was abused and abandoned as a child, raped and left for dead in the woods as a teen, and lost custody of her children as an adult struggling with violence and a drug addiction.

So at age 33, when Lisa Whitford found herself pregnant in jail, awaiting a murder trial, she scared herself straight - weaning herself off illegal and prescription drugs to stay clean.

She delivered a healthy baby girl last March and has successfully raised the infant in a provincial remand centre. And now - with the help of a University of B.C. law professor and two caring lawyers - she will become the first woman in B.C. to keep her baby in a federal prison.


Whitford, who will serve a four-year sentence for manslaughter at Fraser Valley Institution, will be the first inmate accepted into a little-used federal program that will allow her to raise 11-month-old Jordyn in a condominium on prison grounds.

"It's just been an incredible struggle to keep that child with her and give this woman one last chance at her life," her lawyer, Bruce Kaun, said Thursday.

"She's doing really well... She's very clean right now, and very articulate and very focused on raising the child."
Whitford, who was sentenced on Wednesday, will be moved soon to Fraser Valley Institution, where she and Jordyn will live in a private unit with its own kitchen and a park nearby, but will still be surrounded by fences and monitored by guards.

"It's as homey as you can get in a prison... They have cooking facilities, they have to learn to budget and order healthy food for the children and themselves," Kaun said.

While the mother and child will not be among the general prison population, other inmates may get an opportunity to see or interact with the child.

"It's not an argument that we should send some more kids to prison, but it does have an amazing impact on the atmosphere in prison. Playing with a child or a baby brings out the best in people, really," said UBC law professor Michael Jackson, an expert in Canadian prisons and, in particular, female inmates.

Life has been difficult for Whitford, right from her birth in 1972 to her arrest in 2006 for shooting her common-law husband - Jordyn's father -  Anthony Ryan Cartledge, 49, at their rural Prince George home.

Kaun read from a report prepared for Whitford's sentencing hearing, which detailed a litany of abuse, violence and addiction throughout her life.

Kaun said Whitford was determined to fight to keep this baby, after three previous children were ultimately seized by social services.

While she waited for her trial, she did not apply for bail, and the B.C. Corrections system allowed her to keep the baby after she gave birth in custody.

She offered to plead guilty to manslaughter, but the challenge that emerged was convincing authorities to allow her to keep the baby in a federal prison once she started serving her sentence.

At least three federal prisons in Eastern Canada have allowed a handful of female prisoners to raise their babies, but the relatively new policy has not been tested in the West, Jackson said.

Kaun said he had to fight the "behemoth protests" of B.C.'s Ministry for Children and Families, which wanted to seize the baby from Whitford before she went to federal prison.

So, Kaun enlisted the help of UBC's Jackson, who phoned corrections officials and started the ball rolling to have Whitford involved in the federal program.

"It was particularly important that she not lose this baby," Jackson said Thursday, noting Whitford's troubled past and that she had no relatives who could raise the baby for her.

"That put me into high gear to try to first of all get the federal institution to step up to the plate."
Lawyer Sarah Rauch, director of the First Nations Legal Clinic at UBC, also got involved in the case and fought the ministry, Jackson said.

"Lisa had been under the care of a wonderful doctor, who has been supervising her and making sure that everything is fine with the baby. [The doctor] wrote a glowing report, about how whatever may have happened in the past, this time around Lisa was a wonderful mom, doing everything you'd expect of any mom whether she was in prison or not," Jackson said.

"The baby was flourishing, she was healthy, well-developed. In other words this was a very good mother-child relationship. And It would be disastrous for the baby if the baby was was taken away."

The program allows babies to stay with their mothers in federal prisons until they are four years old.
If Whitford behaves in prison, by June 2009 she will be eligible for outings with the child - who will be 27 months old then, Kaun said. So, if all goes well, he said, Whitford will be out of jail before Jordyn is four.

Generally speaking, inmates in Canada can be released after serving two-thirds of their sentences.
Whitford and Jordan will be constantly supervised, because the intent is that the best interests of the child always be protected, Kaun said.

Under the Mother-Child program in Canada, a mother is responsible for the full-time care of her child but has access to pre- and post-natal services from public health authorities,  including  counselling, nutrition and breastfeeding advice.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said Thursday he wants the Correctional Service of Canada to review its Mother-Child program to ensure Jordyn will be given the highest care in prison.

Keith Coulter, CSC commissioner, has been asked to review the prison program as the "best interests of the child are the overarching priority in all such cases," Day said.

Jackson noted there are successful programs in U.S. state jails that allow female inmates to keep their children.
However, pregnant women entering any of the 114 federal prisons in the United States are given the choice of having an abortion or giving the child up for adoption or to foster parents, said Federal Bureau of Prisons official Felicia Ponce.

In Canada, after a child's fourth birthday, the child can participate in a part-time program living with its mother at weekends and during summer vacation and holidays until it reaches the age of 12. At that age, the child can participate in the private family visit program.

Professor Linda Siegel of UBC's department of educational and counselling psychology, said she would have some concern about a baby's development if it were not mixing with other children by the age of three.

But even more important is constant care by its mother.
"Bringing up a child up in prison will obviously not provide optimal conditions and it sounds grim but if the mother is there and there's a consistency of care, that would be the best thing rather than have it looked after by a succession of other people," Siegel said.

Kaun, who was so touched by the case that he keeps a photo of Jordyn on his fridge at home beside pictures of his grandchildren, said Whitford hopes her story provides hope for other women in federal prisons.