Maple Ridge prison mother-baby unit unused

Has not been occupied since reinstated last year at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women

The mother-baby unit at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women reopened last summer, as ordered by the courts, but has not been used since.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled, after a five-year legal battle, that closing the mother-baby program in 2008 violated the rights of the inmates and their babies. Complying with a court order, the program restarted in June 2014.

In the 14 months since then, four babies have been born to inmates of ACCW, but none have been in the mother-baby unit.

Two inmates who delivered babies while incarcerated at ACCW were given early release. This summer, two women who gave birth while serving time at the prison had their babies immediately taken into the foster care system.

A group of professional women who fought in court to have the program reinstated helped draw up a process for creating a mother-baby program in any women’s prison. Members were stunned to learn that the ACCW inmates had their babies taken from them.

“We were just aghast,” said Dr. Ruth Martin, who served as a doctor at ACCW.

Members of the group assumed the program was reinstated, with the B.C. Supreme Court ruling that the women and their babies rights were violated when the parenting unit closed.

“You would want to welcome babies to be with their mothers,” she said. “We had all been waiting to see these babies in the unit.”

Brenda Tole was the warden at ACCW from the time it opened in 2004 until her retirement in 2008. The new prison administration closed the mother-baby program after she left.

It is an ongoing issue. ACCW has averaged about four babies born to inmates per year.

In the six years the program was closed, 23 inmates who gave birth had their children placed in foster care, until the courts ruled the program must be reinstated.

Tole was heavily involved in the trial, and saddened when the babies went to foster care.

“I was just disheartened,” said Tole. “I know the government wasn’t happy about losing that court decision, but it was a court decision …”

Not only is taking a baby away from an incarcerated mother cruel and unusual punishment, Tole said the courts have ruled that it violates both of their charter rights.

In her career in corrections, she never came across a more positive program.

“It was a marvelous effort – good from a health perspective and good from a correctional perspective,” she said.

She said the babies were not compromised in any way by starting their lives in a prison, and the women she observed were good moms.

“They did a very, very good job of taking care of their kids,” she said. “And the babies thrived there. It wasn’t a harsh environment at all.”

As a bonus, she said the babies had a “marvelous effect” on the other inmates, and even on the prison staff.

“It was the best program. I never saw anything that had that kind of impact.”

As a physician, Martin knows that the first few months of a baby’s life are critical to their future health, and says these babies have lost the opportunity to breastfeed and establish maternal-infant bonding, and said that in a letter she recently sent to Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton.

“Always the best interests of the child, is the issue,” she said.

But she said corrections also squandered an opportunity to teach two women to be good mothers.

“It was an incredible opportunity to support he mothers in their parenting,” she said. “Once you’ve taken a baby away from a mother, you can’t go back.”

She said becoming a new mother is the ultimate incentive for an inmate to rehabilitate herself.

She called the mother-baby program the most successful program ACCW ever offered.

“They want to learn to be the best mothers possible.”

Although the ministry decides what is best for infants born to incarcerated mothers, Tole, Martin and the other women observing the situation do not believe there was reason to take the newborns this summer.

Mo Korchinski, a former ACCW inmate who is now project coordinator of a UBC peer mentoring program, said one of the women has returned to her home in Terrace, and has full-time work. The other has returned home to the Okanagan. Both of their babies remain with foster families in Maple Ridge.

Korchinski also believes both women and their babies would have benefited from being together in the prison program.

Tole said even in the inmate population at ACCW, there are not a lot of violent women.

Typically, a women incarcerated for a violent offence was a co-accused in a violent offence that included a man who instigated the attack, she said, or was violent against a partner who had been abusive.

“For most women, when it comes to violence, it’s not random violence,” said Tole.

A statement from Anton says the program has been re-established.

“The mother-child program at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women has been open with dedicated space available since June 2014. The program offers mothers who are in custody a safe, stimulating environment for their babies,” she said.

“The mother-child program was informed by a B.C. Supreme Court decision, extensive stakeholder consultations, research into similar programs elsewhere and policy work. In keeping with the spirit of the court’s decision, B.C. Corrections developed the program’s comprehensive policies and guidelines to ensure a safe, secure, healthy environment.”

Martin is confident the program will once again benefit mothers at ACCW.

“I’m sure there are people in the ministry who know this is in the best interests of the child.”

But she said it may take political action to ensure corrections officials comply.

Tole agrees.

“The minister and the premier have to tell the administration at the institution to sit down with the other ministries, and set up partnerships.

“We’re hoping that at some point this will get back on track.”