Prison moms go to B.C. Supreme court after program cancelled

VANCOUVER – The closing of a provincial program in 2008 that allowed babies to remain with their incarcerated mothers not only violated an infant’s right to a mother’s care, but discriminated against female prisoners as well, lawyers argued Monday.

Lawyer Geoff Cowper made the opening argument at B.C. Supreme Court five years after the Mother-Baby Program was cancelled at Maple Ridge’s Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, a provincial jail for women serving sentences of less than two years.

Cowper is representing Amanda Inglis and her son Damien, as well as Patricia Block and her daughter Amber. The lawyer said the corrections system has no jurisdiction to strip a mother of her right to personally care for her baby.

By taking the babies away, the prison system is also taking away from the infant the same opportunity to bond with their mothers as do other children, Cowper said. Moreover, the baby now lacks the health benefits of breastfeeding and maternal-infant bonding, he said.

“We’re not saying that every mother has an absolute and unquestionable constitutional right to remain with their baby,” he told the court. “If…reasonable cause exists to supplant a mother’s natural right to care for her child, that must be respected. In our system, the decision is made by the (Ministry of Children and Family Development), not the prison system.”

The Mother-Baby program originally began at the Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women, allowing for inmates to care for their newborns while in prison. When the Burnaby facility was closed and the Alouette jail opened in 2004, the program continued on an ad-hoc basis. It was cancelled four years later due to safety concerns, according to the defendents, B.C.’s solicitor general and attorney general, as well Alouette’s current warden.

According to court documents, the Mother-Baby program was terminated because prisoners were exposing babies to dangers by getting into fights or getting involved with drugs. Some also left their babies unattended.

However, Cowper argued the constitutional rights of mothers and infants are at question, not safety standards and prison policies. He also said that modern prisons are not like those depicted in films such as Shawshank Redemption, a 1994 drama that details the lives of two prisoners serving time in a violent state penitentiary.

“We’re not talking about sending babies to an inhospitable prison environment,” said Cowper. “The very reasons these policies and programs exist is because prison officials can provide an environment suitable to mothers and babies in a modern prison setting, and that’s what we’re asking for.”

Inglis, a 27-year-old aboriginal woman from Williams Lake, was serving time for various charges when she gave birth to Damien in March 2008. Two weeks later, the Mother-Baby Program was cancelled.

In May of the same year, Inglis was granted day parole and was transferred to Phoenix Transition House in Prince George, where she was allowed to stay with her son.

Patricia Block, 35, was admitted to Alouette in September 2008 after being convicted on trafficking charges. Block was pregnant at the time of her admittance, but the Mother-Baby program had already been cancelled. As a result, Block applied to serve time in a federal institution so she could apply to the federal equivalent of the Mother-Baby Program, the Mother-Child Program.

She was not accepted, and when her daughter Amber was born in March 2009, Amber was taken away from Block by the Ministry of Children and Families Development.

Lawyers for Inglis and Block argue that the cancellation of the Mother-Baby program caused them both extreme stress and affected them psychologically.

The court is expected to hear testimony from former warden Brenda Tole, as well as Inglis and Block later this week. A prison physician and a psychologist are also expected to testify.

Three other women who were originally participating as plaintiffs in the case have withdrawn. The hearing is expected to run until late June.

Note to readers: This is a corrected version. An earlier story misspelled Brenda Tole’s name.

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