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In this presentation I will discuss some of the preliminary findings from my qualitative research in the mother and baby unit within HMP Styal, a women’s prison in the North West of England.

In the UK, if a woman receives a custodial sentence when pregnant, or if she already has a baby in the community, she can apply to serve her sentence in one of six prison Mother and Baby Units. These units prevent the separation of mum and baby by allowing the child to live within the prison, up to the age of 18 months. The units provide a number of services designed to support the mother and baby, including parenting classes, crèche, and activities that promote the child’s healthy development. The main aim is to foster strong attachment, and to promote ‘good parenting’.

In this presentation I have two aims. First, to describe the ‘moral world’ of the mother and baby unit, highlighting the central values and commitments that are in play, and exploring how these are practiced and negotiated by different actors. In particular, I discuss how the prison’s goal of rehabilitation is tied to the identities of these women as mothers, and how different stakeholders define a ‘good mother’ in this context.

Second, I pose a normative question: how should the prison respect these women’s autonomy as mothers, whilst also restricting their liberty as prisoners? In order to answer this question, I consider the relative importance of a range of important yet often conflicting ethical values, including justice, care, trust and responsibility.

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