For eight years the mother and baby unit at Arohata Prison sat empty, with both staff and prisoners unsure why. Now the unit finally has a resident, after the Office of the Children’s Commission made an urgent visit to the grounds in 2020

It was the Office of the Children’s Commission’s first visit in five years. There were some pregnant women and at least one who had just given birth.

That woman’s application to stay in the mother and baby unit had been declined.

Other mothers since 2014 had been forced to transfer to Christchurch or Auckland women’s prisons, if they wanted to stay in a mother and baby union. Some were not even aware they could apply to stay at Arohata.

The unit was there, a sunny unit on the hillside about a five-minute walk from the main prison, but for reasons not quite clear to both staff and prisoners – and still not obvious to the Children’s Commissioner – it was not being used.

It found a handful of so-called barriers, including the need for a fence and the lack of equipment such as a cot and toys, but it said any problems appeared to have “short-term, achievable solutions”.

“We could not ascertain by whom and how some of these barriers were identified. Historical decisions seem to have been perpetuated and reinforced, even when it is unclear who made the initial decision and why, and whether the decision still applies today,” the office wrote in its 2021 report.

The commissioner’s office was told the hillside the unit was on was too steep and unsafe for walking toddlers and this was why only babies up to nine months old could stay. It was also the reason no playground had been built.

But, when the commissioner’s team visited in 2020 and looked at the hill, it deemed it was not extreme and questioned why – if it was such a barrier – a child-safe fence had simply not been constructed, noting a 69-bed new-build had steamed ahead in the meantime.

“Discussions about men’s placements appear to have taken precedence over considerations for women and babies at Arohata.”
– Office of the Children’s Commissioner

Christchurch and Auckland women’s prisons allow pēpē up to two years old to stay in their mother and baby units.

It heard how mothers had suffered as a result of the lack, including one who was recalled to prison just prior to the Covid-19 lockdown.

“Unfortunately, the woman and her baby were unable to be placed at Arohata, because the pressure of imminent lockdown meant there was not enough time to resolve barriers to the mother and baby unit being used. The woman and her baby went to [another] women’s prison instead, resulting in further separation between the woman and her family.”

It was told Arohata had not had many applications for the unit and uncovered a range of reasons why.

It found prison staff had limited knowledge of the unit criteria, and so were unwilling to encourage women to apply, in case it was declined.

One woman spoken to said she had no idea why her application was declined, and another said she did not even know Arohata had a unit.

“Women told us that they were often hungry while pregnant or breast feeding and did not always receive extra food when they asked for it, whilst others were unaware that they could even ask for additional food.”
– Office of the Children’s Commissioner

The commissioner also found that as Arohata was “coupled” with Rimutaka up until 2020, applications had likely not received the level of attention they deserved.

“Up until recently, women applying for the mother and baby unit or the self-care unit had to go to a panel that was shared with Rimutaka prison.

“Discussions about men’s placements appear to have taken precedence over considerations for women and babies at Arohata.”

It told the prison and the Department of Corrections it needed to make sure babies up to two years old could stay with their mothers at Arohata as well as fix its admissions process, making it clear and easy for both staff and prisoners to follow.

While visiting, the OCC also spoke to women who reported being restrained with handcuffs, some while in hospital prior to birth and afterward.

“We have serious concerns about this unacceptable treatment, as well as the mixed messages amongst staff, and the women themselves, about the use of restraints.”

Corrections reviewed and updated its nation-wide policy on restraints a month before the OCC report was presented to the prison.

It now has a policy that mothers over 30 weeks, giving birth, or immediately post-birth are not to be handcuffed.

Women in Arohata also reported being locked in their cells for up to 21 hours a day and not receiving adequate food, bedding or medical care while pregnant and breastfeeding.

“Women told us that they were often hungry while pregnant or breast feeding and did not always receive extra food when they asked for it, whilst others were unaware that they could even ask for additional food … Arohata management told us that pregnant mothers can receive extra food, however this contradicts what we heard from women.”

“I think that is an opportunity lost for all of us in this country because that relationship between a mother and child is so important.”
– Stacey Shortall, Mothers Project

Arohata prison director Pippa Carey said the programme of work to address lock-up hours, Making Shifts Work, had not yet begun due to delays caused by Covid-19.

The report also found staff were not always told when a woman was pregnant, with the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s visit identifying some staff who could not identify women who had recently given birth.

Carey said the current mother and baby in the unit had been the only completed application since the commissioner’s visit in 2020.

There are currently two pregnant women in Arohata.

She said a few other applications had been started but not progressed and many pregnant prisoners were in the remand space, so would be out by the time they gave birth.

Carey said it was now clear policy that children up to two years old could stay at the unit and new fences as well as a balcony railing had been built for safety reasons.

The mother and baby unit had equipment for one baby, with Carey adding more supplies had been ordered.

She also said a new application process was being trialled and an updated booklet with information on the process had been created.

An anonymous complaints process was also being trialled across all three women’s prisons.

“Deeply sad … and surprising”

Founder of Mothers Project Stacey Shortall said it was “deeply sad” that some women had not had the option of Arohata’s mother and baby unit.

“And I think that is an opportunity lost for all of us in this country because that relationship between a mother and child is so important.

“If you get that relationship working well then the relationship in the whānau improves and then things improve at a community level and a national level… I just think it’s the cornerstone on which societies sit.”

Mothers Project is a group of independent female lawyers who help mothers in prison navigate the legal system in order to maintain connections with their children.

Shortall said the report surprised her because work the project had done at Arohata prior to 2020 before restrictions stopped them being able to enter, and the impression she had from Arohata, did not suggest women were being denied access to their options.

“Arohata has been really supportive of Mothers Project… and for wāhine to have access.

“Their social workers there actively reach out to us, so it just surprises me, some of this because from dealing with the staff they are really good… I’m perplexed a bit as to how this has happened.”

She said the project had worked with mothers and babies in Auckland and Christchurch who had been relocated from Arohata.

“I don’t think we’d really focused on the fact it had not been used at Arohata… I found the report surprising in that respect… We hadn’t had pregnant women coming along saying they were struggling to get access to that unit.

“But that said, we don’t get to everyone and the report has been able to probe that and there appears to be real challenges.”

She said a child-centred approach to managing women in prison was crucial for rehabilitation and to create better outcomes for tamariki.

The Assistant Māori Commissioner for Children Glenis Philip-Barbara said it was “just preposterous” that a women’s prison had not had such a facility for so long.

She said if the justice system continued to lock up pregnant women and new mums, it needed to have systems that supported them and their tamariki.

“It’s not just critical for mum, it’s critical for baby… that mother-child bond is critical, it’s when the foundations for their lives are set down.

“Proximity to whānau is really important.”

Philip-Barbara said the Office of the Children’s Commissioner was due to visit more mother baby units this year in conjunction with the Ombudsman.

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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