Imprisoned mothers have the constitutional right to care for their newborn babies, a B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled.

The decision comes from a lawsuit brought by two former inmates on behalf of all women incarcerated in the province.The suit centred around a program for the mothers of newborn babies at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge that was cancelled by the B.C. government in 2008.

The court ruled the B.C. government decision to cancel a correctional program for the mothers of newborns was unconstitutional because it would separate moms and babies during a critical bonding period.

Currently no such program exists for women in B.C. jails. Only women who were sentenced for non-violent crimes were eligible for the program.

Two days after former inmate Patricia Block gave birth to her daughter in 2009, a social worker took the child away. Block was serving a prison sentence for dealing drugs — she was sentenced just months after the program was cancelled. 

"It was devastating, it was the saddest day of my life," she said.

Judge rules 'arbitrary'

Corrections officials argued correctional facilities were not safe places for babies and that it wasn't in their job description to care for children.

Justice Carol Ross called the decision arbitrary. She found no evidence of any infant suffering harm at a B.C. women's facility, or at any prison nursery, worldwide. Ross ruled the right of a mother and baby to be together is protected by Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Discriminating against women in prison, she said, violates the right to security of the person.

Grace Pastine, the litigation director for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, called the decision a tremendous victory for Canadian women and their infants. It sets a precedent in Canadian law, she said.

"The mother-baby program respected the family unit and the bond between mother and infant," said a statement issued by the BCCLA, which was an intervener in the case.

"It led to better health outcomes for the babies. Safety guidelines were strictly followed during the program, which was supported by health-care practitioners, including doctors and psychologists, as well as prison officials.

"The government will no longer have the option of refusing to administer a successful program that had fundamental benefits for both mothers and babies."

6 months to comply

Spokesperson Marnie Mayhew said B.C. Corrections is in the process of reviewing the decision and determining how to proceed.

"We appreciate the thoughtful consideration the court gave to this case," she said.

Mayhew said if the government decides not to pursue an appeal, B.C. Corrections will have six months to enact the court's decision in its facilities.

"Regardless of the outcome, I can assure you we are committed to ensuring supports for all women, including pregnant women, continue to be in place at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women,” she said.

Geoffrey Cowper, the lawyer who represented the women in the case, said since the B.C. government must comply with the Charter, they have little choice other than to reopen the program at Alouette.

with files from the CBC's Curt Petrovich