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Why are Prison Mother and Baby Units under-used?

Yesterday saw the publication of the Chief Social Worker’s review of decision-making in applications to prison Mother and Baby Units (MBUs).

The review was undertaken by the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, Isabelle Trowler and examines the decision-making process for prison mother and baby unit applications, and child and family social workers’ role in this.

About Mother and Baby Units

An MBU is part of a women’s prison where a mother can live with her baby up to the age of 18 months. There is provision for extended placements where appropriate, such as when the mother’s sentence ends shortly after the child is 18 months old. In exceptional circumstances placements can be extended up to a maximum age of 24 months. Pregnant women, and women with children younger than 18 months old can apply. There are no exclusions relating to remand status/sentence, offence type, sentence type or sentence length.

There are currently six MBUs in England in the following women’s prisons: Styal, Bronzefield, New Hall, Askham Grange, Peterborough and Eastwood Park. Across the country there is capacity for 64 mothers and 70 babies (to allow for multiple births), with each MBU being equipped for 10 to 12 mothers.

Whilst in the MBU, the mother is responsible for their child (although the governor of the prison has a duty of care for both mother and baby). All parents in prison retain parental responsibility for their child (whether in an MBU or not) unless there is a court order removing this. An internal prison document known as a “care plan” will be made for all children living in an MBU (this is different to a statutory care plan for a child in public care). This should be done within the first four weeks. The decision to allocate a place in an MBU to a mother is reviewed every eight weeks to ensure the placement in the MBU remains viable. There is a nursery on site which cares for the child whilst the mother undertakes any courses or work during her sentence.

Findings from the Review

The social worker panel looked at 39 applications that had been rejected by the MBU and agreed that both the decision and the decision making process by the Board was reasonable in 25 cases. A number of these cases showed examples of good practice and engagement by social workers and the Board members. These included high quality evidence provided by social workers which demonstrated a clear  understanding of the functions of an MBU and full and cohesive multidisciplinary approaches. However, the panel raised concerns about 14 of the 39 rejected applications. The main issues of concern which were raised were:

Worryingly, the panel also found a lack of support for women through the MBU application process and a lack of scrutiny of the MBU Boards’ decisions.


The principal and recurring finding from the review was the inconsistency in the application process: inconsistency in the input from social workers for each mother’s application; inconsistency in the risks permitted by different MBU chairs; and inconsistency in how decisions were made. The review makes a number of recommendations which seek to rectify these inconsistencies as well as improving the information and support available to women. The first recommendation is that mothers should be given better support and advocacy throughout the whole process, recognising the profound emotional impact of a mother being separated from her child.

Birth Companions, a charity dedicated to tackling inequalities and disadvantage during pregnancy, birth and early motherhood with a particular focus on mothers in prison, highlighted the fact that the review had revealed the shocking gap in our current knowledge about the numbers, circumstances and outcomes of the children impacted by maternal imprisonment.

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