A battle to reinstate a program that allowed mothers to care for their babies while incarcerated in a Maple Ridge prison began Monday in B.C. Supreme Court.
The constitutional challenge was filed five years ago after the program at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women was suddenly shut down.
In his opening argument, lawyer Geoffrey Cowper noted the program’s cancellation violated his clients’ rights.
“Our goal is to have the program restored,” Cowper said in an earlier interview.
Cowper is representing Amanda Inglis and her son Damien, as well as Patricia Block and her daughter Amber. Both women were former inmates at Alouette, but had their children taken away from them after birth.
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, 22 inmates have given birth to babies who were placed in foster care or with relatives after they were born.
For the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), which is intervening in the case, the issue is more than a violation of constitutional rights.
“We think there are lots of benefits to the program,” said executive director Kasari Govender.
The lawsuit claims the cancellation of the program deprives babies of the health benefits of breast milk and denies women incarcerated at Alouette the opportunity to bond with their babies.
Govender notes aboriginal mothers are disproportionately affected by its cancellation because they account for a large percentage of inmates incarcerated in prison.
“We also say that it’s an issue of security of the person,” Govender added.
“By that we meant the cancellation of the program has detrimental impacts on both the physical and psychological well-being of moms and babies.”
B.C. Corrections has previously said the program was cancelled because the population at Alouette had more than doubled since it first opened.
As a result of the population increase, corrections staff felt that having infants in a prison environment was no longer safe.
The babies and their mothers stayed in a different part of the jail, and throughout its trial run there were no incidents that jeopardized the infants’ safety or put them at risk.
Unlike West Coast LEAF, the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver, which advocates for women in prison, rather see new mothers kept out of prison instead of having the program reinstated.
“Is prison the best place to give children a start in life? Should these women have been incarcerated in the first place,” executive director Shawn Bayes writes in an article that considers sentencing alternatives.
The Elizabeth Fry Society and B.C. Corrections are now working together to identify affected women, develop sentencing alternatives in the community for judges to consider, and enable women to serve their sentence in the community and raise their child.
“Custody for pregnant women and mothers of young children should only ever be used as a last resort,” says Bayes.
The trial is expected to last four weeks.