As a therapist working with women serving time in a Maple Ridge prison, Alison Granger Brown had an open-door policy.
Her office above the gym was a place where women could seek solace, vent and find help.
When the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women decided to pilot a program that allowed mothers to raise their babies while in prison, Granger Brown noticed the atmosphere change.
“It had a sense of hope,” she said, testifying Thursday in B.C. Supreme Court.
“It felt very positive both for staff and for the women.”
The abrupt cancellation of the mother-baby program and several other initiatives in 2008 prompted Granger Brown to resign.
It was difficult for her to watch a program she believed in get dismantled, said Granger Brown, who has kept in touch with many of the mothers she helped while working at Alouette.
“I do this work because it matters.”
Two former inmates – Amanda Inglis and Patricia Block – have launched a constitutional challenge in B.C. Supreme Court, arguing the province violated their charter rights as mothers by not allowing their babies to stay with them in prison.
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.
Granger Brown disagreed.
“There was nothing I saw or heard that posed a safety risk to the babies,” she said.
During her employment at the provincial prison in east Maple Ridge, Granger Brown organized a birthday party for a boy who turned one, as well as a christening. The party was held outside and every inmate was invited
One of the mothers painted a colourful mural on the wall of the prison’s nursery.
“Women were very careful of how they behaved around the babies,” said Granger Brown.
During cross examination, counsel for the province, Heidi Hughes, suggested that inmates were selective about what they shared with Granger Brown and withheld “bad things” because they didn’t want to disappoint her.
“I suggest that the inmates didn’t always confide in you,” Hughes said as she read from a prison log that noted an argument between one mother and another inmate.
“There were circumstances of stress and conflict that the inmates haven’t disclosed?”
Hughes also highlighted words used in a book written by Granger Brown that describe prison as a “hard” and “sad” place.
“I would suggest to you that’s not an ideal place for a baby,” Hughes said.
Dr. Peggy Koopman, a psychologist who testified in support of the plaintiffs Wednesday, explained why it was important for mothers to bond with their babies immediately after birth.
Six months to two years is a critical period, said Koopman, noting that babies as young as three months can distinguish their mother’s face, recognize their smell and walk.
Hughes argued that a mother who is incarcerated could form a bond with their child, after they are released.
“In theory, there are ways that one can attach through visitation?” she asked.
Koopman replied that it would be very difficult for a child who was being cared for by others to form an attachment to a parent once contact had been disrupted.
She added that studies about women who participated in prison mother-baby programs show a decrease in recidivism.
“The children are an incentive for the women to better their lives,” said Koopman.
The court has already heard testimony from former Alouette warden Brenda Tole. Patricia Block, one of the plaintiffs, began her testimony on Thursday. The second plaintiff, Amanda Inglis, is expected to testify next week.