News / Vancouver

Mother-baby unit at B.C. jail in-use for the first time in eight years

Baby is participating in Alouette’s 'mother-baby program,' which allows inmates who give birth while incarcerated to keep their babies with them in jail.

Former inmate and prisoner advocate Mo Korchinski at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology campus in Burnaby in 2015.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro File

Former inmate and prisoner advocate Mo Korchinski at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology campus in Burnaby in 2015.

This is a follow-up story to a three-part Metro series. Read Part I: A success story, Part II: It Falls Apart and Part III: What Now?

For the first time in nearly eight years, a baby is living with its mother at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, a provincial jail near Vancouver, the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General confirmed on Jan. 18.

A source with close ties to Alouette, who asked to remain anonymous, said the baby took up residence in the jail’s mother-baby unit on Dec. 8. Mo Korchinski, a prisoner advocate and support worker who frequently visits inmates at Alouette, also said that a baby arrived at the jail around this time.

The ministry would not disclose when the baby moved into jail, citing “privacy reasons.”

“I’m just so happy there’s a baby there,” says Korchinski, who reached out to the mother during her pregnancy.

The first-time mother was planning to put her baby up for adoption, but changed her mind when the baby was born, Korchinski said.

The baby is participating in Alouette’s “mother-baby program,” which allows inmates who give birth while incarcerated to keep their babies with them in jail.

From 2005 until 2008, Alouette housed mothers and their babies in a designated mother-baby unit without incident. In 2008, B.C. Corrections cancelled the program, claiming concerns for the babies’ safety. Inmates challenged the closure in court on constitutional grounds, and won. The B.C. Supreme Court held that cancelling the program violated the rights of mothers and babies to be together and ordered the program be reinstated.

The mother-baby was re-established in June 2014, but not one woman had been permitted to participate until December 2015, and not for lack of pregnant inmates.

A Metro investigation in early December 2015 found that since Alouette’s mother-baby program was shut down in 2008, 26 babies had been born to provincially incarcerated women in B.C. Three of those babies were born after the program was reinstated in June 2014.

Not one of these 26 babies lived at Alouette with its mother. Fourteen of them were placed in foster care.

Observers have noted the positive impact prison mother-baby programs have on inmates and their children: women are motivated to turn their lives around and babies enjoy the benefits of breastfeeding and bonding with their mothers.

B.C. Children’s Advocate Mary Ellen-Turpel Lafond called the first roll-out of Alouette’s mother-baby program “excellent,” and “very safe.”

“It was so important to keep moms and babies together and the evidence was showing very good results with that program,” she said in a June interview.

The presence of this baby will be felt across Alouette, says Korchinski.

“It changes an atmosphere of a jail,” she said. “It’s positive too because it gives women more courage to come out and fight for their kids.”

At least one other pregnant inmate is doing just that.

As of January 18, another application to Alouette’s mother-baby program was “in progress,” according to the Ministry of Public Safety. The B.C. Ministry of Public Safety did not immediately respond to a request for an update on this application’s status.

When asked whether the admission of the December baby holds promise for future pregnant inmates, Korchinski hedges.

“The unit’s open now, so we’ll see.”

Dean Purdy, vice president of BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU), Component 1, which represents correctional officers at Alouette, said the majority of his members welcome the new infant resident.

“For the most part, our members do feel this is a positive thing,” he said. “They believe that any time you have a baby around, it lightens the tension and day-to-day mood of a correctional centre.”

In September 2015, UBC’s Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education released a set of guidelines and best practices for the implementation of mother-child programs in Canadian prisons. The guidelines have yet to become government policy in B.C. or elsewhere.

A union executive and an Alouette correctional officer were on a committee that made recommendations to the guidelines’ authors, says Purdy.

“We want to ensure that there is adequate staffing in place, that policy is followed to make sure that the officer, the baby and the mother-inmate are safe.”

More on Metronews.ca