Babies behind bars

post by Princess Leia

For a number of years, the practice of ‘babies behind bars’ has grown in popularity. This phenomenon has been increasing over the past ten years in many different countries, including America and the United Kingdom. Netflix has even released a documentary about one of these occurrences in the United States. The situations always play out relative to mothers and babies within female prisons. In the UK, the units cater for mothers with babies under the age of eighteen months as women who either give ‘birth in prison or have a child under 18 months old they can apply to bring their child to prison with them’.

From the literature, we are familiar with the developmental stages of young children. The need to secure a strong bond with a parent is essential for future life outcomes. UNICEF (2013) states that for children to develop to their full potential it takes a cocktail of good nutrition, health, consistent love and care, and encouragement to learn. UNICEF (2015) also believes that early childhood development has the strongest correlation with breaking the poverty cycle and improving general human development. Supporting appropriate early childhood development can help to guarantee that individuals will reach their full potential and become productive members of society (UNICEF, 2015). Having the option to keep children with their biological parents rather than in kinship care or state-run foster care is a major positive for this initiative and through this understanding I believe that the mother and baby units are a positive addition to society and should become more and more common.

The question I raise in this post is the limiting of these units to mothers – why aren’t there the same amount of units emerging within men’s prisons for father and baby opportunities? In the UK, women contribute to just about five percent of the total prison population so surely there has to be more fathers separated from their new-born or young children than mothers? Why do we exclusively focus on the relationship between mothers and their babies and completely ignore their relationship with their biological fathers? I acknowledge that mothers have nine months of physically carrying the child within their body such that the bonding process starts much earlier than with fathers, but by only having the mother and baby units we are putting all the pressure on the mothers to create mini human beings that will develop into contributing members of society. If they fail, the blame falls solely onto them as a result. It is reported that fathers spend the majority of their ‘one on one time with infants and pre-schoolers in stimulating, playful activity’, whereas mothers don’t, and through these interactions children learn to regulate their feelings and behaviours (Oliker, 2011). The relationships between young children and their fathers are essential and bring a very critical side of their development to the forefront.

It is understood that women who had the opportunity to be a part of these mother and baby units found them to be very positive environments within the prison and a place for them to open up and talk about their fears and worries as well as create connections with other inmates. Given these positive outcomes, wouldn’t it make sense to share such an opportunity with the majority of the prison population? In addition, there has been evidence produced that states that reports of re-offending for the women who participate in the baby and mother units is lower than for women within the general prison population who may have been separated from their children (Shlonsky et al, 2016)

With a combination of the positive effects on both the young child’s development as well as positive impact on the parents, I believe that these parent-child units should be shared throughout more of the prison systems internationally. The majority of prisons focus on rehabilitation for their inmates and encourage programs to assist relative to reoffending, etc. The evidence that these parent-child units work should be taken more seriously and expanded within the prison system.


UNICEF (2015, December 10). The Big Picture. Retrieved May 22, 2018, from

UNICEF (2013, July 26). Why early Childhood Development? Retrieved May 22, 2018, from

Oliker, D. M. (2011, July 23). The Importance of Fathers. Retrieved May 22, 2018, from

Shlonsky, A., Rose, D., Harris, J., Albers, B., Mildon, R., Wilson, S. J., & Kissinger, L. (2016). Literature Review of Prison-based Mothers and Children Programs. Corrections Victoria. Read here



Author: socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand

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