Prison baby: Motherhood on the inside.

By Jane Cowan

It’s strange the things you miss.

Olives — fresh ones, not from a jar.

Real coffee.

A cold beer.

The ability to shave your legs properly, colour your hair.

To go to the shop and buy whatever you want, not have to ration supplies like you’re in the army.

What happened

You never expected to end up in prison.

It was ice. Crystal meth.

At first it was pure fun, a social scene. But recreational use with friends became a slippery slope to daily addiction.

Then you had to start paying for it. You were working, but inevitably you lost your job because you weren’t functional. That’s when you turned to crime to pay for your addiction. Because God knows you weren’t willing to give it up. You couldn’t.

A nasty drug.

Eventually you got busted and that road led to here.

You can forget

Tarrengower is not what you imagine a prison to be.

No cells, no bars, no concrete floors.

No razor wire, barely a fence or a locked door. Minimum security.

Instead there are pastures, trees, bush-covered hills. A swimming pool. Play equipment for the kids, a trampoline. You heard right. For the kids.

There are benefits to doing your time on an ex-dairy farm in Maldon, half-an-hour south-west of Bendigo.

If you sit amongst the vegie patches when the sun is setting after the 4:30pm head count, you’ve got until 10:00pm before you have anywhere to be.

You can look out over the meadows. Watch the sun set, turn the fields golden. You can forget.


The real punishment is the separation from your family, your supports. And the loss of your freedom. You have your rights taken away from you. Rightly so, but.

It’s a damn sight better than Deer Park and that first night in the Dandenong cells when you wondered how you would make it.

A bumpy ride

Out on bail there was rehab. You got clean. Your partner too. That’s when the little one was conceived.

Unplanned, but wanted.

By the time you arrived at Tarrengower you were 17 weeks along.

Your son was born in custody, has lived almost every day of his short life in jail. Prison baby, you joke.

After 18 months for drug trafficking and dealing in the proceeds of crime, even the guards have a soft spot for him. There are other kids in here but he’s the favourite. Then again, you’re biased.

There have been stays on the outside with grandparents, fortnightly visits with his father who’s incarcerated in a nearby men’s prison. Serving time for the same crime and due to be released on the same day. How romantic.


But the other prisoners have been your son’s immediate family, watching him grow first in your belly and then into the incredibly social, happy toddler he is now. Just began walking. So proud of himself.

It’s harder for the other women. Their children are on the outside. They’re trying to parent from a distance. You are lucky, you know.

This time has been a blessing. This bonding. Life has been consumed — like any mother’s — by cycles of feeding, bathing, napping, changing. Playtime.

Your time has flown because of him.

A story to tell

The floorboards creak as you lean over to lift your son out of his crib, heavy with sleep.

He doesn’t know he’s in prison.

You plan to tell him everything one day. When he’s old enough.

A photo of his parents smiles down from the wall. Soon we’ll be a family again. On the outside.

Let mum be a lesson in what not to do.

You know you’re not a bad person. The word ‘criminal’ doesn’t seem right — for you or for many of the women in here. Normal people who took a wrong turn. And who’ve paid the price.

Everything is different now. Everything.

There is someone else to live for.

You are a mother.

Thanks to Tarrengower prison and Corrections Victoria for making this story possible.

Mother and child’s identity have been obscured on request.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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