Mother-Child Units in Correctional Centres: A Better Chance for Babies

Mo Korchinski, a former prison inmate who now advocates for prisoners, sits for a photograph in Chilliwack, B.C., on Friday July 15, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck - See more
Mo Korchinski, a former prison inmate who now advocates for prisoners, sits for a photograph in Chilliwack, B.C., on Friday July 15, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck - See more

The March 2016 recommendation by the Office of the Correction Investigator has been widely picked up by media sources and parenting advocates.  National guidelines for mother-child units released in November 2015 are designed to prioritize a child’s interests, allowing the child to stay with their mothers up to the age of four in the prison system, reports a Canadian Press posting by Linda Givetash on July 17.  Givetash interviewed Dr. Ruth Elwood-Martin, director of the Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education at the University of British Columbia, who states, “These babies have had a better chance in their life to start off than they otherwise would have had.”

Dr. Martin, a family physician, began working in British Columbia’s provincial correctional centres in 1994. In 2000, she initiated a cervical-cancer screening pilot inside prison, and later assisted with the HPV primary screening study in BC, “HPV-FOCAL.” In 2005, she became the Inaugural Director of the UBC Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education (CCPHE), a network of academic, community and prison persons interested in improving the health of individuals in custody, their families and communities. She introduced the unique concept of engaging women in prison, prison staff and academics in participatory health research (PHR) to address concerns raised by the women themselves. Over 200 women became members of the PHR team over three years, and their work included conducting 16 peer health surveys, hosting 10 health research forums, developing and presenting 46 health educational presentations, writing health advocacy letters, and presenting to the local high school.

This spring, Dr. Martin was a recipient of the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case in recognition of her public health work with incarcerated women in Canada. The award recognized her work “as pioneering advocate for incarcerated women. For decades she has worked to improve support for incarcerated women in Canada who face untold challenges… Using novel, participatory research approaches, Dr. Martin led the way on women’s prison health research in Canada while communicating her research findings widely and reinforcing their impact.”

In 2013, Dr. Martin was co-principal investigator for the “Bonding Through Bars” project, which examined the topic of children born to incarcerated parents, and was an expert witness in the BC Supreme Court case, which ruled that the decision to cancel a provincial correctional facility mother-child unit infringed the constitutional rights of mothers and babies. In March 2014, Dr. Martin and CCPHE developed best practice evidence-based Guidelines for the Implementation of Mother-Child Units in Canadian Correctional Facilities. The guidelines greatly influenced the implementation of the BC provincial correctional Mother-Child Unit, which officially opened in July 2014.

Mother-child units offer women access to prenatal and parenting skills programs before the baby’s birth and provide appropriate facilities to care for their infants while they serve out their sentence.  Dr. Martin says the units are comparable to a nursery or daycare facility, bright, welcoming and safe for any child, and allowing opportunity to breastfeed and to develop a mother-child bond during the newborn stage.  “Once you take that baby away, you can’t go back,” she notes, adding that the opportunity to keep their children is an incentive for women to turn their lives around, while losing custody causes hopelessness and despair that can send women back into activities that initially led to their arrest.

One of Dr. Martin’s projects, in collaboration with the incarcerated women with whom she works, has been the production of a book Arresting Hope: Women Taking Action in Prison Inside Out (Inanna Publications). The book, comprising poetry, stories, letters, interviews, fragments of conversations, reflections, memories, quotations, journal entries, creative nonfiction, and scholarly research, includes:

  • A re-tracing of the warden’s vision from its inception
  • The prison doctor’s journal entries and her exploration of, ‘What is health?’ for women in prison
  • An introduction to the ways that babies can live in prison
  • The role of a recreation therapist in prison
  • The significance of Indigenous education in Canadian prisons
  • An introduction to participatory health research processes of transformation
  • The narratives of some incarcerated women, including Mo Korchinski, journeying with Mo from childhood through her revolving door incarcerations until she arrives in this prison; experiencing, in Mo’s narratives and in her illustrations, the transformations that occurred in this prison; and getting to know Mo as prison inmate, writer and artist, advocate, researcher, woman, mother and grandmother.

Mo Korchinski was among the first inmates at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge when it opened in 2004 and witnessed her fellow inmates benefit from the mother-child program when it was first developed, reports Givetash.  "You bring a baby into a room full of women and it changes everybody. It changed the jail. People watched their language. People's behaviour just changes around children," Korchinski said.

The program was shut down in 2008, but the B.C. Supreme Court decision in December 2013 determined that the closure of the facility infringed the rights of women and their children.

The mother-child unit reopened in June 2014.  However, not all women in BC correctional facilities are accessing the mother-child programs, and Dr. Martin states that she believes fear causes decision-makers, such as social workers, to be reluctant in allowing children to stay with their mothers.  She says, “My experience working for many years as a prison physician is that women desperately want to be the best mother they can and to actually be helped, to be supported, to have the parenting skills and to improve in any way that they can.”