Parliament: Questions Kelly's Asked

Prison Facilities for Mothers with Newborns

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: Supplementary: given that to the best of my knowledge South Australia is the only mainland state without a mothers’ and babies’ unit within prisons, does the minister concede that there must be a substantial amount of evidence that it is in the best interests of the child to be reunited with their mother while in prison? And on the issue of infrastructure—

The Hon. P. Malinauskas: Just say that again, sorry.

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: Given that we are the only mainland state without a unit for mothers and babies in prisons, there must be a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that it is in the best interests of the child, no? That is the first part. Secondly, in terms of infrastructure, in the minister’s understanding so far, what would need to be provided to make sure that such a unit was built for the best interests of a child?

The Hon. P. MALINAUSKAS (Minister for Police, Minister for Correctional Services, Minister for Emergency Services, Minister for Road Safety): As I stated in my previous answer, I am aware of the fact that there are some sources which demonstrate that it is indeed in the best interests of the child under certain situations in certain circumstances to have on-site access to a mother, but again, I acknowledge the fact that I am pretty sure you are right that all mainland states do have a mothers’ and babies’ unit. We are, of course, the smallest mainland state when it comes to the size of our prison population, so that puts us in a different position. It is not a simple apples for apples comparison.

In terms of how that impacts the decision we have made up until this point to provide a greater degree of clarity, it is the department’s view that it is not okay to simply set up a mothers’ and babies’ unit in a way that does not reflect the need. In other words, just to set up a room in an existing facility and say, ‘This room will provide access for a child and a mother,’ is not sufficient. There need to be appropriately designed and set up facilities to make sure that the interests of the child are best accommodated, rather than just doing it in an ad hoc way within the existing facility.

So, in other words it is a case of: if it is going to be done it needs to be done properly and that, of course, brings with it additional expense, because we know that building facilities of any nature within a custodial environment is an exceptionally expensive exercise due to the unique nature of building within a prison system.

With that in mind and the relevant cost associated, as in every other decision that has to be made within government, the relative cost has to be weighed up with the relative benefit, and in the case of South Australia the relative benefit is small in comparison to other jurisdictions as a result of the small number of people that are likely to be affected.

This is a cause that I think on the basis of evidence most would be sympathetic towards. I have received a number of representations regarding this issue from organisations, and I have a great degree of affection and indeed admiration there, and we will continue to work with those organisations and the department in the context of a department that has a significant amount of demand within it and has a limited amount of resources to see what ways we can potentially deliver such a program, but at the moment there are not any plans to do so. Instead our focus is on what we can do within the existing facilities to provide better access to mothers.

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: A further supplementary: given that the minister says that work is ongoing in terms of looking at the need for a parents and babies unit, when does he expect that work to be completed?

The Hon. P. MALINAUSKAS (Minister for Police, Minister for Correctional Services, Minister for Emergency Services, Minister for Road Safety): I am not able to provide a finite time line. That would be inappropriate for me to do and would amount to me making a commitment as to when we might build such a facility when there is no prospective time line. I am simply noting that there is an understanding and an acknowledgement on the legitimacy of this issue, but as it stands, I think the focus of this government is best placed on what we can do within the existing arrangements.

First question asked by Hon Dennis Hood:

The Hon. D.G.E. HOOD: I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking the Minister for Correctional Services a question relating to baby units in prisons.

Leave granted.

The Hon. D.G.E. HOOD: Recently, a twice convicted drug-trafficking mother of two was resentenced to a suspended prison term on an 18-month good behaviour bond on the grounds that her original terms of imprisonment would not allow her to adequately care for her newborn children. The mother attempted to import a chemical used in the production of amphetamines, while serving a suspended sentence for drug offending.

While awaiting sentencing, she fell pregnant with her second child and subsequently argued she should not have to give birth in prison, nor be separated from her newborn, to which the court agreed. The presiding district judge, His Honour Paul Cuthbertson, described the South Australian prison system as ‘undoubtedly inadequate’ compared with those interstate, which cater to female inmates with babies more adequately.

Adelaide Women’s Prison manager Darian Shephard-Bayly explained that baby units were discontinued due to concerns about the service’s quality. There have been calls to re-establish similar units. My questions to the minister are:

  1. Can the minister explain the existing policies dealing with women who are sentenced to a term of imprisonment and have newborn children, are pregnant or both?
  2. Is the government considering introducing facilities that can allow women to provide adequate care for their children whilst incarcerated?

The Hon. P. MALINAUSKAS (Minister for Police, Minister for Correctional Services, Minister for Emergency Services, and Minister for Road Safety): I thank the honourable member for his questions. Of course, the issue of mothers and babies or babies and children within the Women’s Prison is one that has been raised periodically during the time that I have been fortunate enough to be Minister for Correctional Services. It particularly becomes topical whenever there is a significant court case like the one the honourable member refers to.

The government understands the desire for a mothers and babies unit; however, consideration needs to be given to what is in the best interests of children, along with other infrastructure needs. The Department for Correctional Services continues to progress a range of strategies around accommodating mothers and their children that include a mix of parenting programs, child and family reunification programs and increased visit access.

The department has recently opened 24 beds for women at the Adelaide Pre-release Centre, which provides greater opportunities to facilitate contact between mothers and their children in a community setting. Women accommodated at the Adelaide Pre-release Centre are able to have visits six days per week and, as they progress through the system and demonstrate good behaviour, can participate in other reunification programs, such as weekend stays, for appropriate low-security offenders. Every effort is made for a primary caregiver to complete their sentence in the community. However, it is ultimately a matter for the court to determine whether a custodial penalty is warranted.

The department has already increased the number of visits available for women in the Pre‑release Centre and the number of visits available at the Women’s Prison from five to 12 at a time, and a new visit centre incorporating a playground has recently been built at the Women’s Prison. The primary caregiver status of women offenders requires consideration and service delivery to contribute to female offenders’ rehabilitation and, ultimately, reductions in reoffending.

While it is the case that there are no current plans for a mothers’ and babies’ facility to be introduced to the prison system, this will be explored on an ongoing basis as part of a women offenders’ framework in the future, but the department is working to progress a range of strategies to assist women in this difficult situation. In dealing with this complex policy area, the government is at pains to make it clear that our objective and the decisions we make in respect of this particular set of circumstances will always be oriented toward what is in the best interests of children.

It is true that on a regular basis this government has received representations, as have I, around how it is indeed in the interests of children to have on-site access to their mother who has been incarcerated under certain circumstances. At the moment, that can’t be facilitated as a result of a lack of a mothers’ and babies’ unit. However, in comparison to other jurisdictions with which we are regularly compared in this particular area, it is worth noting that the size of the population that would actually utilise such a facility is demonstrably smaller than in other custodial facilities around the country.

When we are talking about such a small number of women in the context of decisions around resources, it is a difficult one in some instances to stack up in comparison to the very substantial other areas of need within the prison system. This is something that will continue to be looked at in the future, no doubt, but as always, it has to be weighed up versus the other needs of the department which are wide and varied, particularly at the moment, which has been well established and talked about in this place previously.