When Mom's in prison, should her baby be behind bars too?

Mexico City lets incarcerated women keep their children until the age of 6. Nice thought, but sounds a little wacko to us.

Published February 7, 2008 5:30PM (EST)

A story in the Chicago Tribune explores a bizarre policy adopted by Mexico City concerning children in prison. Since the 1990s, children born to incarcerated women inside the city's prisons are required to stay with their mothers until the age of 6. It's not an option; it's a requirement. The government applies the law with irrational consistency -- the kids stay with Mom even when there's a history of violence. In one instance mentioned in the article, a woman who had been convicted of causing her stepson's death was allowed to keep her baby.

The article is filled with disturbing images: a brightly colored preschool behind bars, children living with their mothers along with two other mothers and their children in a 144-square-foot cell, children getting frequent respiratory illnesses from the damp, drafty cells, kids spending afternoons after school walking the exercise yard. Everyone -- both staff and incarcerated alike -- emphasizes the positive influence of the children on the mothers and the relative safety of these children surrounded by a "collective maternal instinct." But for me, the most heartbreaking part of the law is not so much tots doing time behind bars but the fact that, at 6 years old, the children -- who have been more dependent on their mothers than most children out in society might have been -- are suddenly taken away from the one person they know best.

The Mexican government has obviously made a policy decision based on the idea that early-childhood bonding with a mother trumps most other concerns. And though studies do show that it's good for kids with parents in prison to spend time with them, isn't this a little wacko?

When reading this story, I assumed this was an anomalous practice, rare in the rest of the world. But according to a policy paper, "Violence Against Babies and Small Children Living in Prison With their Mothers" by the Quaker United Nations Office, many countries allow similar arrangements, though policies vary widely in upper age limits. Policies also vary in how the prison defines the arrangement -- some maintain that living with children is a privilege, others that it's a right. (I didn't find other countries or municipalities that make it a requirement.) How well the prisons accommodate the presence of innocent inmates also varies, from European countries taking great pains to make sure the children don't know they are in prison to children being warehoused in huge dormitories with their mothers and other inmates.

Countries as diverse as Cambodia, Bolivia, Pakistan and Spain allow children to live in prison up to the age of 6. Some countries make different decisions based on the kind of prison -- in Germany children may live in closed prisons only until 3 but in open prisons (with lower security) until 6. France, Malta, the United Kingdom, Finland and the U.S. allow children to live behind bars until they are toddlers. Others, like New Zealand, Iceland, Ghana, Hungary and Ireland, only allow babies to live in the bog house and in some cases only while the mother is breast-feeding. Mexico seems to occupy the edge of the spectrum with children of any age permitted to stay with their mother.

What's clear from the report (which chronicles lots of egregious abuse by fellow inmates and staff, institutional neglect and lack of government oversight for the children) is that many countries haven't figured out how to punish the mother, honor the importance of keeping babies or young children with their mothers and simultaneously not punish the child. "Whilst there is a wealth of international law and guidelines concerning imprisonment, there are almost no specific standards regarding the treatment of children in prison with their mothers," the report concludes. "With few exceptions, states and the United Nations human rights mechanisms have given little consideration to the rights and needs of children in prison with their mothers."

I'm torn. Anytime a mother gets imprisoned it's obviously a lose-lose-lose situation for mother, baby and society at large. But is the answer curtailing kids' freedom to keep them under a mother's wing? Or is this just another way humanity has learned to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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