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Ex-inmates win victory for moms and babies behind bars

An exterior shot of the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, which hosted the mother-baby program until 2008.   - The News/Files
An exterior shot of the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, which hosted the mother-baby program until 2008.
— image credit: The News/Files

The provincial government’s decision to close the mother-baby program at a Maple Ridge women's prison has been deemed unconstitutional.

Issued Monday, the B.C. Supreme Court decision marks the end of five-year-long battle for Amanda Inglis and Patricia Block, two former inmates at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women who sued the province after the program was suddenly shut down in 2008.

The court held that mothers’ and babies’ equality rights, as well as their rights to security of the person, were violated by the government’s decision to end the program.

It found the decision to end the program did not consider the best interests of children or the constitutional rights of mothers.

The mother-baby program began at the provincial prison, on Alouette Road off 249th Street, not long after it opened in April 2004. The four-year experiment saw 12 mothers live with their children inside the prison fences. Of the 12, three mother-baby pairs were aboriginal.

B.C. Corrections ended the program in 2008, citing an increase in prison population and the safety of infants for its demise. Since then, inmates who have given birth have had their babies placed in foster care or with relatives.

The plaintiffs argued the closure deprived mothers and babies of the opportunity to bond, breastfeed, and develop close familial attachments, despite the fact that mothers wished to, and were deemed to be able to care for their children.

The West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, which intervened in the case, applauded the B.C. Supreme Court decision.

“Aboriginal, poor and otherwise marginalized women are over-represented in prisons, and it is these women and their children who were also disproportionately affected by the cancellation of the mother-baby program,” said executive director Kasari Govender. “First Nations families have faced historic dislocation and state interference, from residential schools to the Sixties Scoop to the gross over-representation of Aboriginal children in state care today. This decision is a victory for highly vulnerable women and their children, who will now have much better prospects for future well-being.”

According to B.C. Corrections, the program was terminated because the safety of the babies was jeopardized. One of the mothers was caught using marijuana, others got into fights, and some left their babies unsupervised.

However a doctor and therapist, who both worked at the prison, testified that the program was beneficial to mothers, babies, and had a positive impact on the entire prison as well as other inmates.

If government decides to not pursue an appeal, B.C. Corrections has six months to fulfill the direction from the court.

“We appreciate the thoughtful consideration the court gave to this case," said B.C. Corrections spokesperson Marnie Mayhew.

"B.C. Corrections will be carefully reviewing the decision and will determine how to best to move forward.  Regardless of the outcome, I can assure you we are committed to ensuring supports for all women – including pregnant women – continue to be in place at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women.”

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