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Marc My Words - 23 June 2006

Marc My Words… 23 June 2006
Political comment
Marc Alexander
Not everyone who can be a parent should be one

The loss of some rights used to be part of the penalty for breaking the law. We saw it as fair and a just price for wrongdoing. But we such ideas are not in vogue anymore. We shun the idea of shame and eschew blame as reasonable 'costs' for making the wrong choices. Instead we now look for 'underlying' causes' to treat - as if crime were an illness.

We dredge up seemingly any and every excuse we can think of to humanize criminals. Worse, we normalize the consequences of crime, including the prison experience, as much as possible. It is why young thugs can burn down a school gym only to be sent to a facility that has a better one; or a criminal too lazy to bother working to pay his own way (but not bothered enough to stop burglaring to satisfy his demands), can get his requirements met in prison with minimum contribution. We've had debates on everything from open prisons, day passes for so-called family events, car driving tests and even sporting occasions, buckets of KFC provided as treats, and front-end home detentions for a wide range of criminals including, of all things, wife beaters who are returned, not only to the scene of the crime, but often where their victims reside. And now, courtesy of Greens Sue Bradford, a private members Bill that would give women criminals a closer longer bond with their babies.

Its no coincidence that Bradfords Bill is being advanced at a time when we have a massive 75% increase in women inmates just in five years. While still a long way behind men, the so-called fairer sex is catching up fast. Ms Bradford offers a couple of reasons for her proposal. Firstly that "securing a mother's right to breastfeed irrespective of disciplinary measures by prison authorities will be a major achievement," and "secondly, so long as mothers and babies have conditions provided that are suitable to their development it will enable children to be accommodated with their mothers for up to two years. In some prisons, that will mean we will need to take action to make suitable mother and baby units available." (15 June 2006)

Sue Bradford is rightly concerned about the health of the baby. No baby should be penalized as a consequence of the criminal activities of the parent, but I doubt whether it can ever be in the interests of an infant to be cared by a criminal serving their sentence.

As the law currently stands, children can be removed from their mothers from six months. If breast feeding is an issue, then there is no reason why these criminal mothers could not express their milk and have other caregivers bottle feed (after being tested for drugs which could be passed on of course). But if it's about bonding, then I question whether an infant should be encouraged to form an emotional attachment with a woman only to be broken after two years, leaving an emotional difficulty, that no infant could comprehend or deserve. And where is the father in all of this? I don't see a reciprocal bonding policy being advocated for by Ms Bradford, but then that might be too hard for the public to accept. Unfortunately we still have rose-tinted ideas about female criminals despite the overwhelming evidence of their complicity in crimes like infanticide.

The overseas experience is worth taking a look at. With support from the Columbia University Institute for Child and Family Policy and the New York State Department of Health, Dr. Byrne conducted a preliminary study in 2000 and a much larger project in 2003 to track about 100 prison nursery babies from birth, throughout their stay in the nursery, and through their first year outside of prison. Unfortunately she has not included recidivism in her study despite the obvious fact that recidivism is an important factor in the child’s well-being because if the mother returns to prison, her baby is separated from her yet again. Other studies do point to a lowering of recidivism but with an overall explosion in the female prison population as a countervailing factor. What we do know however, is that such steps to normalize life behind bars to that outside has led to the number of children with a mother in prison nearly doubling (up 98%) from 1991 to 1999.(U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Statistics 2000).

Worse, there has been a huge cost paid out by taxes on creating prison nurseries - which is the next logical step if the Bradford Bill becomes law. Earlier this year prison authorities in California (following on from the experience in other states like Nevada) opened the state's first prison nursery to cope with more than 300 babies this year alone.

What next? A supply of cribs, breast pumps, lullaby mobiles, and nursery rhyme books? It's all very well to shed a tear for these mothers but we are in a danger of forgetting why they are in prison in the first place. Research shows that having a parent in prison makes a child four times more likely to end up in prison someday. It's a vicious cycle that won't be helped by making it easier by normalizing the opportunity to have those children in prison. Many who want such changes, foreshadowed by the likes of Bradford, don't seem to understand that they are co-dependants of crime; they inadvertently support more of the behaviors they try to change. Consider the real life experience of criminals like Oleta Simmons, who is serving her fourth prison sentence having given birth to six children; three while being incarcerated. She said that after each parole, "I did what I normally did on the outside…the babies aren't going to get us clean," she said. "I have six kids and that didn't cure me."

The emphasis on prison family bonding and reunification to curb recidivism is overly optimistic. It’s a policy direction that risks placing the desires and needs of mothers who are often unfit to assume that responsibility ahead of their children's interests. It may be unpalatable for some but what may be good for incarcerated criminal moms is not necessarily best for their babies.

There are some tough questions that demand to be asked and answered before we start passing fluffy feel good legislation that will end up being counterproductive. For example, how is a practice of making prison life more like that outside amongst the general population (minus the inconvenient need to work for a living), going to make society safer?

Frankly I'm sick to death of hearing the hue and cry of those who claim that some criminal - despite beating the daylights out of someone during a bungled burglary - is still a good parent! No they're actually not a good parent any more than they are a good citizen.

As a parent, I can only imagine how hard it must be to unwillingly part with your child but let's get real here: the mothers Sue Bradford wants to help with her Bill chose to commit crimes for which they are now in prison. They have no-one but themselves to blame. Some are violent, some are murderers; and they will get but a small taste of the pain which their offending may have placed on their unwilling victims. What of them?

If this Bill passes into law it will be a cruel irony that a murdering criminal will get the opportunity to nurse and bond with her child while having been put in prison for denying another mother and family the same joys of parenting. That would be no justice at all. None for the victim or their family. Certainly none for the innocent baby who would be better off being raised by a family who can care and love the child without the baggage and heritage of a criminal parent.

Prison is where we send criminals. It is no place for babies.


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