Rare look at Aussie jails where mums and their kids co-exist
As you drive towards Emu Plains Correctional Centre, the high walls topped with barbed wire are hard to miss.
It looks like any other jail.
From the outside, it doesn’t seem like the ideal home for babies and toddlers.
But nestled next door, is a row of purpose-built cottages where female inmates serving time and their young children can live together.
9News has been given rare media access into Jacaranda Cottages to tour the minimum-security centre and meet the mums, staff and kids.
As well as doing time, the women learn parenting skills and can access support and rehabilitation services.
It’s important to remember that many of these women were victims themselves before they became offenders, suffering high rates of abuse and domestic violence throughout their lives.
Among facilities are cots, prams, toys, an indoor play area and a playground and lawn.
There are currently 10 women inmates living there full-time with eight children and two babies due in December.
Another six mums are enrolled in the occasional residential program, which permits their kids aged up to 12 to stay with them on weekends and school holidays.
Across NSW, there are currently 18 pregnant women in custody.
Some only learn they are expecting when they undergo routine tests as part of their prison admission.
A woman we will call *Clare was one of them.
She remembers visiting her own mother in jail as a child.
The visits were mostly confined to holidays like Easter and Christmas and she hated saying goodbye.
Clare is now in her mid-thirties and has been in and out of prison throughout her life.
She described it to 9News as “a never-ending cycle of drugs, jail, release, drugs, jail. And just a repeat cycle all the time. And then when I found out I was pregnant,
I just made that choice then and there to put a stop to it,” she said.
I ask if that means she thinks she won’t reoffend.
“I don’t think. I know,” she says confidently.
Clare has been here before and says Jacaranda Cottages has changed her life.
“Just little things like first words, reaching her milestones and being there and being a part of it you know. Because I have a 15-year-old and I never got that chance with him,” she said.
Sarah* is another inmate who takes part in the mothers and babies program.
She says she committed a “white collar crime” and is half way through a two-year sentence.
“My boys are too young to realise where they are but they have actual strong connections with all the children that are here,” she said.
Belinda McInnes has run the program for 15 years.
She says, “The children are not serving a sentence. It’s important to remember they’re visitors to our environment and so they shouldn’t be deprived of all their
relationships with other family and also community experiences,” she says.
The women and children here go on “excursions” to do the grocery shopping and buy clothes for the children at Big W every few weeks.
Sarah says in many ways it’s like being a regular mum - attending playground sessions and park dates - the only difference being these mums have no access to iPads and phones and other electrical devices to entertain their children.
“We do it the old way,” she says.
Established in 1996, the Mothers and Children’s Program offers options to women offenders who want to have an active parenting role while in custody.
There are three dedicated staff: a manager, services and programs officer and a part-time psychologist.
The full-time program allows babies and kids under school-age the opportunity to live with their mums or primary carers at Jacaranda Cottages or Parramatta Transitional Centre.
In the past decade, 380 children have been involved in the program.
Across NSW, there are currently just over 1000 women in custody.
Their prisons include Emu Plains, Silverwater, Dillwynia in Windsor, Mary Wade in Lidcombe and Berrima.
Others are behind bars in Bathurst, Broken Hill, Cessnock, Grafton, Junee, Long Bay, Mid-North Coast and Wellington.
In Sarah’s words, “it’s giving you hope. I’ve been given this wonderful opportunity to raise my children in a terrible situation that I’ve put myself in.”
The day we visit, the playgroup is having a party, because one mother and her child are being released the next day.
There’s a lot of excitement and anxiety. While everyone will be sad to say goodbye, they also hope they’ve learned enough skills, and made enough changes, to never have to return.