British Columbia

Doctor touts benefits of keeping mom, baby together in jail

Keeping incarcerated mothers and babies together in jail has multiple physical and social health benefits for the pair, a prison doctor testified Monday.
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)

Keeping incarcerated mothers and babies together in jail has multiple physical and social health benefits for the pair, a prison doctor testified Monday.

But Crown lawyers questioned Dr. Ruth Martin's expertise on the question, noting that while she connects familial attachment with a decrease in inmates reoffending, she has no training in the area of recidivism.

Two former inmates are challenging the B.C. government's decision to cancel the mother-baby program at Maple Ridge's Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in 2008, saying it violated their charter rights.

Martin was one of the physicians who treated inmates, including those who participated in the program, at the provincial institution. In a report submitted as evidence on Monday, Martin wrote about the advantages of allowing babies to remain with their mothers.

But Crown lawyer Heidi Hughes argued Martin, who trained as a family physician and was a prison doctor for 17 years, is not qualified to conclude that keeping mothers and babies together in prison decreases recidivism rates.

Martin agreed she has no expertise in criminology, but she said through her experience and research, she understands the factors that could lead to women returning to prison less often.

"Homelessness, education, relationships with families, meaningful work. . . in fact, many of these factors are what constitute health," she said.

Martin's report also referenced an evaluation of Alouette's mother-baby program done by Amy Salmon from the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health. Salmon's study, which consisted of medical records of mother-infant pairs and interviews with mothers who participated in the program as well as prison health staff, concluded the evidence does not support the termination of the program.

However, Hughes suggested Salmon's study was not scientifically valid because she only interviewed two to three mothers, and her study was based on self-reporting.

Martin's report also referred to the success of other mother-baby programs, such as ones that exist in the United States. But Hughes argued those programs cannot be compared to Alouette's because the type of inmates, sentences and resources available are different.

Hughes also suggested there are different schools of thought on the type of resources needed to support women and their babies, but Martin insisted that keeping a mother and her newborn together so she can breastfeed is paramount.

"I think it would be difficult to not support the opinion on whether a baby should be breastfed," she said. "The World Health Organization has a policy that all babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives, and up to two years old."

Earlier in the day, the court also heard from Sarah Payne, who used to work at a unit at B.C. Women's Hospital that treated pregnant women with substance abuse issues.

Payne had suggested a mother-baby program be created at Alouette to allow female prisoners to continue to take care of their newborns while serving out their sentences, saying it is important for infants to be with their mothers from birth because they need to be breastfed and that it forms attachment.

As well, Payne said allowing babies to remain with mothers with substance abuse problems in a safe place gives the mothers a sense of hope and an inclination to turn their lives around.