The Archers’ Helen will give birth in jail – but what’s it really like having a baby behind bars?

Every week, two babies are born in the prison system of England and Wales. Janice Turner reports from the prison at the heart of soap's hottest story

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When Laura gave birth, two prison officers stood sentry outside the operating theatre. A 36-week scan showed her baby had stopped growing, she’d been induced twice unsuccessfully and ended up having an emergency Caesarean. It was a tough, lonely labour. “No one was very kind,” she says. “I felt the hospital staff looked down on me because I was a prisoner.” 

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Waking to feed her daughter Maya on her first night as a mother, she’d find an officer she didn’t know sitting inches from her bed. “I don’t know how they thought I was going to abscond,” she says. “I’d just had an epidural – I could barely stand up.” 

Later, she was released from hospital into the mother and baby unit (MBU) of Eastwood Park women’s prison. Unlike the main facility, where she’d spent most of her pregnancy – “it’s hard dealing with cravings inside” – Laura’s room has an ensuite bathroom and her bed has a proper mattress not a thin plastic pad. But she was given no support from staff, even when her stitches made it painful to bend down. 

It is odd discussing The Archers inside prison. But after she gives birth this week Helen Archer will request a transfer to an MBU. And the governor of Eastwood Park, Suzy Dymond-White (above, main image) says her story is a hotly debated by staff. All agree the portrayal of a Helen, heavily-pregnant and on remand for stabbing her husband Rob, rings true. “Very many women prisoners have been in abusive relationships,” she says.

Unlike the rest of Eastwood Park, the MBU has no bars on the windows. Room doors aren’t locked, from 7.45am until 7.45pm prisoners can enjoy the small garden with its lawn, flowers and play equipment. Inside is clean, modern and purpose-built, with primary-coloured play-mats in the nursery and drawings by prisoners’ children.  

But there is no question you are in prison. Dropped incongruously into a village in open countryside between Gloucester and Bristol, Eastwood Park is surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. At the main gate, officers with jangling key chains – I’m told off for calling them “guards” or “wardens” – escort you past the more forbidding high-security blocks, through a heavy iron door into the MBU compound. 

Prison officers – both male and female – watch the mothers at all times. Their job is to maintain security: they are not permitted to touch the babies. The biggest surprise is that whilst the MBU holds 13 women and babies, only two are in residence today and there are seldom more than six. Every week, two babies are born in the prison system of England and Wales, but most are removed at birth. Getting permission to keep a child inside is extremely tough.

First a prisoner must convince an admissions board comprised of social workers, probation officers and prison staff. It isn’t the offence a woman has committed but her behaviour which counts. “The babies’ needs come first,” says Suzy Dymond-White. If a woman has mental health problems, a chaotic lifestyle, exhibits violent behaviour which might endanger not just her own child but others in the MBU, if previous children have been neglected, or – most emphatically – if she is using drugs, she will lose her baby.

Laura, 27, from south Wales, was put into care after being physically abused by her mother. By 11 she was addicted to heroin and crack, fell in with a drug gang and was first imprisoned aged 16. She’s served time for armed robbery of a rival dealer. But, she claims, she’d been clean of drugs, was working in a chainstore and settled with her new partner, Maya’s father, when this case dating back several years came to court. Two men had attacked a drug dealer and, although she did not take part, Laura was deemed an accessory. She was six weeks pregnant when she was sent down. “I hoped they’d let me out with an electronic tag when Maya was born,” she says. “I’ve never breached my bail conditions. But not with my history of offending.”

So Maya has spent her first five months inside. Not that you’d guess: she is smiley, plump and content. Since Laura will be released later this month, she won’t face the agony of separation. 

A woman serving a short sentence is allowed to keep her baby for a maximum of 18 months. For women with longer stretches – Helen Archer faces either six years for malicious wounding or 12 for attempted murder – their babies are removed at around seven months. By then babies have formed attachments to a primary care-giver, which is key to future development, but are not yet limited by the MBU’s confined world where they never see dogs or parks, go in a shop or take a bus.

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“Women know right from the start they can’t keep their babies,” says Suzy Dymond-White. “We draw up a separation plan. The babies go on day release with their fathers or the prisoners’ mothers who will be caring for them.” Thus babies can acclimatise to the noisy outside world beyond the rural silence of Eastwood Park. But it is hard for mothers returning to the main prison alone. “We let them go over to make friends before they’re sent back full time,” says the governor. “Some require counselling.”