Marseille (AFP) – In a fenced courtyard, prisoner Sandrine bounces her 10 month-old baby on her lap, a break from the small cell they both share.
She is one of five young mothers and a pregnant woman at Baumettes women’s prison in Marseille, southern France, who have chosen to serve their sentences with their babies alongside them.
The rules are more relaxed in this small wing of the prison, with access to a small courtyard and a play room for a few hours every morning and afternoon.
The close to 200 inmates in other areas of the prison never cross paths with the mothers and their babies, aged between 15 days and 13 months.
“It’s not bad here, we must be honest,” said 36-year-old Sandrine, which is not her real name.
She is the only one who did not give birth in prison, instead choosing to bring her baby with her after she was handed an 18-month sentence, an option given to mother’s of young babies.
At night, the cell doors are locked and the mothers are left alone with their baby son or daughter.
“We panic straight away if we spot a fever, because it is almost impossible to get a doctor to come here,” said another mother.
For Florence Duborper, the director of Relais Enfants-parents, a charity which helps prisoners maintain a link with their families, there is “no good option” for the babies.
“But most of the time maintaining the mother-child bond seems to be most important. To be incarcerated without her child, for many mothers, is a wrenching, physical pain.”
France is by no means alone among European Union member states in ensuring mothers doing jail time need not be parted from very young children as long as penitentiaries have the requisite facilities.