TV review: Babies Behind Bars

Is prison no place for babies – or might keeping them behind bars help cut crime?
Babies Behind Bars
Babies Behind Bars. Photograph: Firecracker Films Photograph: Firecracker Films

I'm not sure about putting Babies Behind Bars (ITV1), to be honest. I suppose it depends what they've done; it doesn't seem entirely right to me, though you could argue prison is like a big cot. Toddlers maybe, but even then I think incarceration should be used only as a last resort, after the naughty step has failed, say, three times. Yes, three steps and you're out, or rather in, that could work as a deterrent. But babies! I know they can do some pretty horrendous things, but I'm not sure they can be expected to fully understand the law or even if they can be held responsible for their own actions.

Oh, I see, it's about babies who are born in prison, and a fascinating scheme in a US jail that allows some women to keep them. Normally they're taken away, after 24 hours. Ouch. But the Indiana Women's Prison has a new nursery wing called Wee Ones which allows a few babies to remain with their mothers. Behind bars.

It's not without controversy of course. Critics say that prison is no place for babies, and that the scheme punishes the babies, who haven't done anything wrong, and rewards the mothers, who have. Then there are the problems of keeping the babies safe. There are some dangerous ladies in Indiana Women's Prison. Donna, 20, who's pregnant and trying to get on to the scheme herself, tells of one inmate who put her baby in the microwave because she was jealous of the attention her husband was giving it when he got home from work. "And then there's another lady that cut her baby up, put it in stew, cooked it and fed it to her husband." I'm not sure these stories are totally true but you'd still need to be extra careful when choosing a nanny round here. Mmmm, bébé bourguignon.

Donna doesn't make it on to the scheme initially. Nor does Heather, a former prostitute, who's pregnant with her eighth child. As well as the anger and jealousy that failing to get a place on Wee Ones causes, there are the problems of what to do with the baby after its 24 hours' bonding with its mother are up. Heather's boyfriend's daughter will take care of it, but only if it turns out black. If it's not black, she's not interested. The (probable) father, who's not the boyfriend, is in jail for life so he's no use. What about Heather's mum, could she help out? Heather calls her and she says she will, but then later changes her mind because her doctor says it would be too stressful (though Heather doesn't believe this).

In the end the authorities sort out foster care for the child – with an Amish family! Poor little thing. One minute it was looking like it could have been born into Bad Girls; in the end it's going to get Witness and a life of barn-raising.

Bobbi, a drug user with previous convictions and previous babies, is luckier and secures a place on the scheme. The date of inducement is kept from her to minimise the risk of escape, but they do take her leg irons off to facilitate the birth. Well, she's had an epidural (hard labour is a thing of the past), so she's numb from the waist down. "She's not going anywhere at the moment," says Officer Cook, a lady prison guard, coolly.

I'd like to have been told more about what the situation is in this country, but our prison system isn't as cooperative with the media as the Americans are. They may lock up more people than anywhere else, but they also let in more camera crews. That openness should be applauded and must lead to a better understanding of what actually goes on in these places.

There's evidence that the rate of reoffending is lower for women who go on the Wee Ones scheme than those who don't. Anyone who thinks prison has something to do with rehabilitation and turning people into better citizens, as well as punishment, will see it as a good idea. The governor thinks that it might lead to lower crime rates for the children too, but they'll have to wait and see about that – not too long, they seem to start pretty young around here.

There are no losers then (except for the taxpayer perhaps). It's even nice for the screws, having babies about the place, and a big bunch of keys makes an excellent rattle. I would keep an eye on that Officer Cook though, what with her name, and all of Donna's stories . . .


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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