The case of 38-year-old Kizzy Bernard has highlighted yet another failing of our penal system. Bernard was eight months pregnant when she was granted bail earlier this month after being charged along with three men for the $5 million-heist at Piarco International Airport. Her lawyers cited her pregnancy in support of her bail application. That should never have to be.
While there is an entire prison facility dedicated to housing female inmates, remarkably that facility does not have a nursery. A nursery was recommended in the Prison Reform and Transformation Task Force Report 2002, but it never materialised.
It is for the court to determine Bernard’s innocence or guilt. But we say this: while women should face justice for any crimes they commit they should not be made to suffer gratuitous indignities because of their gender, nor should the welfare of their children and families be imperilled by an unduly harsh and discriminatory penal system. A newborn baby needs to bond with its mother.
In the 2011 book Disrupted Childhoods: Children of Women in Prison, Rutgers-Camden Professor Jane Siegel also presents research showing increased signs of withdrawal among children deprived of exposure to their mother due to jail time. About 2.6 per cent of the total prison population are women, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. However, with the overall prison population rising, the issue is only set to become more relevant.
Obstetrician/gynaecologist Dr Sherene Kalloo has called for nurseries across the board, not just at prisons. “What makes them more special than everybody else?” she asks. But women in jail are not in the same position as women who are at liberty to move around and to do things like apply for maternity leave. Women already suffer more than men when they are imprisoned. They are more vulnerable to the indignities associated with remand. For instance, they may be denied sanitary items.
There have been complaints about abuse by prison guards. Prisons are already overcrowded and because of the deleterious impact the incarceration of women has on families, the criminal justice should be mature enough to hand down non-custodial sentences as a matter of course if it cannot accommodate the pregnant. What has become of plans for ankle bracelets?
It is in the interest of society to protect children and the welfare of families. A woman may well foresee the consequences of her actions, but the child should not have to pay for the sins of the mother.