But it's precisely this message - that
the government cares about the emotional well-being of inmates -
that has led to a quiet change in Canada and elsewhere, giving
women the chance to turn their lives around while raising their
infants. In many cases, it seems to be working.
Ms. Whitford, according to her lawyer,
Bruce Kaun, was abused as a child, raped as a teenager, and lost
custody of her three other children while struggling with a
criminal past and drug addictions as an adult. It wasn't until
Jordyn was born, he said, that she started to change her ways.
"There's nothing left in her life. She
has nobody," he said. "Caring for this child gives her a sense
of worthfulness, something to live for. She cares so much for
To date, Ms. Whitford has raised Jordyn
in a provincial remand centre under the supervision of medical
and safety professionals. Now, after a year of fighting off
provincial officials who wanted to place the child in foster
care, mother and baby will be moving to the federal,
medium-security Fraser Valley Institution.
There, Ms. Whitford will be able to
raise her daughter in an apartment-like unit with its own
kitchen and a park nearby on prison grounds. They will still be
surrounded by security fences and monitored by guards and a
pediatrician as part of the rarely used federal mother-child
program that exists at six federal institutions across the
The idea of allowing a woman to keep her
baby locked up with her is hardly new.
The first informal prison nursery in
Canada was started at the provincial Portage Jail in Portage La
Prairie, Man., in the mid-1970s. The head warden at the time,
according to Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian
Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, would allow women to
have their children over for meals and the occasional sleepover.
When one of the inmates gave birth while in custody, she was
allowed to raise the baby girl in her cell.
The Correctional Service of Canada, the
federal agency responsible for managing institutions and
administering sentences of two years or more, formally
implemented its program in 2001. To qualify for the program,
women must undergo a psychological assessment, and children
cannot stay past their fourth birthday.
In the United States, the practice dates
back to the early 20th century. The nursery program at the
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York was established
in 1902 and is the only one from that era that remains open,
according to Joseph Carlson, a leading expert on prison
nurseries and a law professor at the University of Nebraska. A
handful of states in the past 15 years have since modelled their
programs after Bedford Hills.
Australia, Brazil, Ecuador, Germany,
Mexico, the Netherlands, Russia and Sweden also have versions of
the programs, dating back to the 1990s.
The general principle behind them is to
give women the chance to build that "critical" relationship with
their newborn, said Sarah From of the Women's Prison Association
in New York City, something that can give them a heightened
sense of responsibility and motivate them to remain law-abiding
citizens when they are released.
The eight nursery programs in the United
States, which accommodate an average of six children per
institution at a time, have had demonstrable benefits, said
Prof. Carlson. Only two children were in the Canadian federal
system as of December, the CSC said.
According to data Prof. Carlson
collected over five years, the recidivism rate for women who
were allowed to keep their children with them while they served
time was 9 per cent, compared with nearly 34 per cent for women
who had children but could not raise them in jail.
"We may not help everybody, but right
now we're showing a lot more people helped than hurt," he said.
Inmates are also generally calmer when there is a baby in the
facility, he said.
What children's rights activists say
angers them is that the programs seem to be in place for the
benefit of the woman, not the child.
"Children should be raised in a safe,
nurturing environment," said Grant Wilson, president of the
Canadian Children's Rights Council.
"I don't believe a prison system can do
that. I'm revolted to think that a baby will be learning to
crawl around inmates."
Mr. Wilson advocates that, ideally,
these children be adopted by close relatives, who can help keep
the mother in the child's life.
Although bringing a child up in prison
might not provide optimal conditions, said Ms. Pate of the
Elizabeth Fry Society, the consistency of care provided by the
birth mother is better than having the child looked after by a
series of foster parents or distant relatives.
Ms. From, the Women's Prison Association
spokeswoman, said many of the facilities have made good efforts
to ensure they are child-friendly.
"There will be a play area with a
colourful rug, there'll be toys," she said.
"So mom knows she's in prison, but for
the child, especially a two-year-old, it's not really an