New mother Keisha is a natural as she attends to her baby son Jack*, instinctively responding to his grumbles and fostering a gentle playfulness before planting a series of kisses on top of his soft head.When nap time comes around, the little boy settles quietly in his cot with soothing words from mum in his cool darkened bedroom. The mother-son bond is clearly secure and loving.
On the surface of it, little Jack’s surroundings are pretty idyllic. He has a comfortable cot, stimulating toys and a pram for walks.
Outside is a well-kept green lawn with colourful playground equipment. There are other mums and babies nearby, an indoor play area and he undergoes his regular infant checks by health workers.To Jack, the world looks pretty good. And yet in truth his environment is anything but typical. For Keisha, 22, and Jack are living within the secure confines of Jacaranda Cottages mothers and babies unit at Emu Plains Correctional Centre in Sydney’s west.
While some may baulk at the idea of a baby living in prison, the alternative – a newborn being separated from their mother, even if circumstances are safe for them to be together – is arguably worse.
Being imprisoned as a new mum still has its challenges, such as having no freedom or autonomy and being constantly monitored by government departments, but it’s also an opportunity for inmates to take part in parenting programs and build an important bond with their baby.
At Jacaranda Cottages, babies and young children up to school age can live with their mum while she serves her sentence.
Here Keisha, who began taking drugs after falling in with the wrong crowd as a teenager in a NSW country town, tells The Weekly what her life is like in jail and how the experience is shaping her future.
“My life is good at Jacaranda Cottages because I have been able to bond with my newborn son,” she says. “I was lucky to get onto the program as obviously there are some [inmates] who don’t meet the criteria. My daily routine is just like any other mother apart from having a head check [a headcount to ensure all inmates are present] at 6.30am. I then prepare my son’s day and the Mothers and Children’s program runs groups that we must attend, including parenting courses, art therapy and playgroup," she says.
“I get constant support from staff and other inmates too. [When I was pregnant] I had pre-natal checks through the health clinic at Emu Plains. After [Jack was born at the local public hospital under the guard of a prison officer], my family came down and stayed in a hotel in the area. This enabled them to meet my child and also gave me comfort of having them around at this special time.
“[If I hadn’t been able to keep Jack with me] the alternative would have been for my baby to be cared for by my sister who is completing a nursing degree. She would have had to put her studies on hold until I was released.
“I’ve been able to address my drug abuse issues while I serve my sentence and I feel confident when I am released that I will be a good mother and citizen.
Now I’m looking forward to getting back into the community. I’m going to create a positive future for myself and my son. I’m planning to do a TAFE course in business and I hope to bring my child up to be a fine young man.”
For more on life inside a women’s jail, read our upcoming feature in The Australian Women’s Weekly magazine
*baby’s name changed to protect identity