explainer

'Every moment of birth I fought it.' The truth about giving birth in prison, and what happens next.

“It was a very painful process, because I knew the minute she was born, they were going to take her off me. So every moment of birth I fought it. ‘Keep her inside, she’s yours. The minute she’s out, she’s not.’

“That was not a happy time. I got about an hour with her, and then she started to get hungry. I couldn’t stand the thought of them taking her first, I had to take myself out of the room first.”

Lindy Chamberlain was sent to jail in the 1980s over the death of her two month old daughter Azaria, a crime she didn’t commit and was later exonerated for.

But during the three years she did spend behind bars, Lindy gave birth to her daughter Kahlia, a process that was incredibly painful as she described recently to the ABC.

Listen to The Quicky explore motherhood behind bars. Post continues after podcast.

In those days, there was no such thing as a mothers and children’s program in Australian prisons, and even if there were, it was unlikely Lindy would have been able to keep her daughter given the nature of the ‘crime’ she was in there for.

Nowadays, giving birth in prison is a very different experience. Every state and territory has legislation in place to accommodate babies behind bars – although there are limited spaces.

In South Australia, children are allowed to stay until they’re three, but in New South Wales they can stay until they turn six.

The children don’t stay in a cell, they live on prison grounds in a little cottage or unit-type set up with their mum. It looks domestic, not custodial – but the doors are locked.

Pregnant women behind bars still get all the prenatal care they would on the outside, and when it’s time to give birth they are taken to hospital. They are returned to prison with their baby, if the child is well enough to come with them.

Kerry Tucker spent seven years in a maximum security prison for stealing close to two million dollars from her employer. She explains to The Quicky the set up is made as normal as possible for the child.

“You can move around in the unit at night. It’s comfortable living, you just can’t get out. The babies live in the same room as their mum.”

She is quick to retort claims it might be considered unsafe to have babies in such an environment, telling host Claire Murphy, “It’s absolutely safe. Prison systems aren’t going to allow newborn babies into a prison unless they are safe. They are supervised, monitored, and they are given programs.”

Kerry explains that it actually ‘softens’ the prison.

“Having the giggling voices of little children around. The children have got 50 aunties all of a sudden all trying to be their favourite.”

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Being in prison doesn’t stop mothers doing what their counterparts do on the outside. They still have mother’s groups, they still gather around the playground – it’s just in this scenario they are being supervised.

“Mums in there rely on each other because it’s a very different kind of parenting,” said Kerry.

“I know children who have grown up in the prison and they’re terrific young kids. At the time, they didn’t know where they were. They didn’t care. They were with mum,” she explains.

For Kerry the experience of parenting while in prison was a bit different. Her daughters were five and seven when she was locked up, and were looked after on the outside by their father.

“It was very, very difficult. My girls were very little, and they weren’t used to not having their mum around to tuck them in each night. I had to try and find ways to remain relevant in their lives just as a mum or a person, because I wasn’t an authority in their lives anymore,” she told The Quicky.

Kerry had two phone calls a week, each just six minutes long, as well as visitation. But as Kerry explains, that became less and less frequent while she was in there.

To try and stay relevant, Kerry sent her daughters a letter each every single day – something they later told her became very important for them – that trip to the letterbox.

She started with writing ‘today I thought about you 100 times,’ and it grew to read ‘today I thought of you 1750 times.’

Being released from prison after serving time comes with a different set of challenges. When Kerry emerged, her little girls were now young women.

“When I got out I realised I wasn’t mum, I was more like auntie mum. It was very difficult. They were sceptical as to why I had disappeared. They weren’t sure if I was going to leave them again.

“When I got out I was still at the point where I had left them, whereas they were grown up and were young women. I had to find a place where I fit into their lives, even though I’d given birth to them,” she explained.

She got through it by staying patient. Crimes aside, Kerry’s children weren’t part of her sentence. She had to learn to work around them.

As a mum who has been there, Kerry wants us on the outside to remember, it’s not women in prison saying “bring us our kids – we have a right to see them.”

She says the philosophy is more “it’s the right of our children to see their mother.”

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