In this talk I present some of the key findings from my DPhil project, entitled ‘Care and Control: An ethical analysis of parenting support within a UK prison mother and baby unit.’ I am grateful for this opportunity to share my work with you, and practice fielding questions in advance of my viva!
In recent years, the idea of state provided ‘parenting support’ has gained prominence within the early intervention (EI) policy agenda. A central claim of EI policy is that poor parenting during the early years of life can lead to a range of bad outcomes for children, such as ill health, academic failure, poverty, and crime. Therefore, EI often involves identifying babies and children who are at risk of being ‘poorly parented,’ and intervening upon these parents in order to help them provide better care to their children.
In the UK, female prisoners who are pregnant or who have a small child are able to apply to serve their sentence within a prison mother and baby unit (MBU). The baby can remain within the unit up until the age of 18 months, and whilst the mother serves her sentence she is provided with various kinds of parenting support. Some of these forms of parenting support look very similar to that which is provided to women enrolled in EI programs in the community. However, prison policy is unclear as to the goals of parenting support in this environment and it is possible to anticipate a number of ethical challenges that may arise in practice: how can prison provide a good start in life for children? What is the relationship – if any – between crime and being a good mother? To what extent can and should women exercise parental autonomy in a prison environment? How do the goals of the MBU as regards parenting support and childcare sit alongside the other goals of the prison: justice, security, and delivery of punishment?
Over a period of 7 months I conducted interviews, focus groups, and participant observation within the MBU of a women’s prison in the North of England. In my thesis, I provide a rich ethical analysis of the practice of parenting support as it takes place within the ‘moral world’ of the MBU. In this presentation I focus particularly on the ‘dual role’ of parenting support as a form of both care and punishment/control. I discuss some of the ethical challenges that arise as a consequence of this ‘dual role’, and consider the extent to which women can or should be afforded parental autonomy in a prison environment.