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The B.C. Supreme Court hearing to determine if mothers should be allowed to keep their babies in prison is expected to run until late June. (Valentina Powers/Flickr)

A program to allow babies to stay with their imprisoned mothers in a B.C. jail caused very few safety problems before it was cancelled, says the former warden who oversaw the project.

But a lawyer for the province suggested the program wasn't a success, noting the first participant ended up back in jail again, this time without her child.

Brenda Tole, who left her post as warden of Maple Ridge's Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in the summer of 2007, helped develop the centre's mother-baby program when the facility opened in 2004.

Its cancellation in 2008 is now the subject of a constitutional challenge in B.C. Supreme Court, with two former female inmates arguing that not allowing their babies to stay with them while they were in jail was a violation of their rights as mothers under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General — now known as the Ministry of Justice — had said the program was terminated because it wasn't safe for babies to live with their mothers in prison.

'There didn't appear to be any harm to the baby'

But Tole said an extensive safety protocol was developed in collaboration with the Corrections Branch, health officials and the Ministry of Children and Family Development prior to the program's launch, and the protocol was strictly followed.

She testified that during her time as warden, she remembers only a few incidents that were quickly dealt with by staff.

One circumstance in 2006 involved a mother who appeared to be rocking her baby too hard on a baby toy while talking to another woman.

"The baby was about six months old at the time, and the mother was bouncing it a little too enthusiastically, and she was spoken to by an officer and she stopped," Tole told the court.

According to records, a corrections officer at the time said the baby's head was jerking back and forth. But Tole, who watched video footage of the incident, said she saw only that the baby seemed to be bouncing a little too much.

"There didn't appear to be any harm to the baby, and there was no intent," she said.

Tole said the incident was reported to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, which took no action.

Lawyer questions program's success

In another instance, a baby was choking on something and an ambulance was called while a staff member scooped the object out of the baby's mouth and cleared the child's airways. The baby was then examined by paramedics, and was allowed to remain at Alouette, said Tole.

Tole also remembered a third incident, where a mother prisoner reported that she was being pressured by another inmate to pick up some drugs that were dropped outside. Tole said the inmate who supposedly made the threat was removed from the unit.

During cross-examination, defence lawyer Heidi Hughes questioned Tole's definition of the program's success, particularly when the first mother who entered the program with her baby in 2005 was back in jail several months later. This time, she came without her child.

"In terms of rehabilitation, we can't say that this worked for this woman," said Hughes. "My suggestion to you is, in fact, this woman is back in incarceration, her infants are not with her, and that is the worst of possible outcomes for the infant."

Tole disagreed, saying the baby had at least spent the first six months of his life with his mother. She also said that the baby and his brother were being cared for by their father the second time their mother was admitted to Alouette, and that she hasn't been incarcerated again since 2011.

Hughes also noted Tole admittedly supports allowing inmates to reside in a less restrictive environment and suggested Tole may have a different assessment of safety risks than her successor Lisa Anderson, who, for example, did not allow inmates to run outside of the facility's gates as Tole did.

Not 'a whole lot' of contraband at prison

Upon questioning, Tole also acknowledged that many women who come to Alouette are often under high stress and are coping with substance abuse, which could lead to greater irritability and aggression.

While the province's solicitor general has said exposure to drugs and contraband was one of the safety concerns that led to the cancellation of the program, Tole said there wasn't "a whole lot" of contraband at Alouette.

"There isn't any institution that doesn't, on occasion, have contraband come in," she said. "We have a pretty observant staff in control, and we did not have a lot of occasions where anything got in. There was no incident or occurrence where they [the babies] came into contact with contraband."

Tole testified a total of 12 mother-baby pairs participated in the program over the four years and the safety guidelines were strictly adhered to.

A baby was allowed to come to Alouette with its mother only with permission from the Ministry of Children and Family Development. A play area was designed with the help of a family education centre to ensure the infants would be safe.

Mothers and designated babysitters also had to do a urine analysis on demand. No one except the mother, an approved babysitter, or health-care worker, was allowed to touch the babies unless it was an emergency — not even staff, said Tole. Inmates were also not allowed to be in each other's bedrooms, and entrances to all of the institution's units were monitored by surveillance cameras.

Meetings occurred daily between social workers, health-care workers, and management to express any concerns about inmates and to monitor the comings and goings of people, Tole said.

'Critical period' for mother-baby bonding

The former warden said the program was highly supported by the health-care workers at Alouette and by the social workers who visited.

Tole said her then-director, Brent Merchant, also responded positively.

Tole said she was disheartened to learn of the program's cancellation after she left Alouette because the program did not cost very much and offered many benefits.

"The aspect of having the babies to be able to remain with their mothers in those formative months was based really on a lot of experience and research that indicates how important that critical period is for bonding, for breast feeding and for nurturing," she said.

"The positive impact on the institution, the very positive impacts on the mothers themselves, the reduction in recidivism rateathose were all benefits and bonuses that came out of that initiative, but the initiative was really to foster that critical period when babies were first born."