T

he little boy squeals with laughter as his mother throws him up in the air, catching him and pulling him into a cuddle before she tosses him skyward again.

As the pair play in their yard under the heat of the summer sun, something catches the little boy's eye and his face lights up.

He's spotted his best mate and her mum wandering over from next door. Both mothers lift their toddlers from their hip to the ground and watch them run to each other excitedly.

Almost colliding as they fumble into a high five, a gesture they've recently perfected and repeat over and over, the youngsters giggle and garble at each other as their mothers chat away behind them.

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 New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.

It's a scene from a typical Kiwi yard - toys scattered on the dry grass that crunches under the kids' feet and is well overdue for a cut, yellow oxalis blowing around in the breeze and the sound of unhindered fun.

But these kids are living a life that is far from typical. They are the children of inmates doing time at Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility - criminals raising their babies behind bars.

READ MORE:
Born behind bars: The infants of our inmates

More than 100 babies have been born to women in prison in the past six years, including 15 new arrivals in 2016 and one born in the past couple of weeks to an Auckland inmate.

The Weekend Herald was invited to meet some of the women who have given birth during their sentences, and see how they are raising their babies in the ARWCF Mothers and Babies units.

For privacy, legal and safety reasons these women and their babies cannot be identified.

Their names have been changed to protect them, and the victims of their criminal offending.

Jessie was four months pregnant with her first child when she was sent to prison and she had no idea how she was going to cope or what she was going to go with a baby behind bars.

"It was a pretty anxious time, there was a lot of pressure," she says.

"My pregnancy was all right, and then I had Charlie and I knew that I wasn't going to keep him here... I just wanted to carry on with my sentence and let him be out in a safe environment."

But her plans were unravelled a few months later and Jessie had to make a big decision.

Though her family were supportive and willing to raise him until her release, Child Youth and Family could not approve them as caregivers.

New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.

"I decided to bring him in here and take care of him full time myself. I didn't want him to be living with strangers.

"He was four months old when I brought him in here and it was actually a relief ... I could finally wake up with him," she says, a loving smile stretching across her face.

Jessie is one of six mums living with their children, aged between one month and 17 months, in the ARWCF units at the moment.

There are similar units at Arohata Prison in Wellington and Christchurch Women's Prison - all built and run with the aim of helping the mother to develop and maintain a functional relationship with her child, and reducing the likelihood of the mother re-offending.

The unit at ARWCF is made up of two houses - each with three bedrooms and a communal bathroom, kitchen and lounge - in a sunny corner of the prison grounds behind a black perimeter fence.

I decided to bring him in here and take care of him full time myself. I didn't want him to be living with strangers. Jessie, ARWFC inmate and mum

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The houses are light and bright, with big comfy couches, colourful artwork on the walls and everything the women need to care for their babies.

It's not a given that a pregnant inmate will get a room in the unit when she gives birth. Any woman who wants a place - including newly sentenced inmates with young babies born on the outside - has to meet strict eligibility criteria.

To be eligible, an inmate must be pregnant or have a child under 2; be the child's primary caregiver before she was jailed or the most likely primary caregiver after release and have no convictions for violent or sexual offending against children.

The inmate must also agree to undertake mental health and substance abuse screening, and sign a parenting agreement which effectively says they will undertake the full time care of their child including providing their food, clothing, nappies and anything else they need.

The mothers are responsible for all cooking, cleaning and laundry in the unit, which means they have to budget, shop and organise everything they and their babies need.

It may sound like an easy ride for a prisoner, but, like motherhood on the outside, it's a full time job.

New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
R

ebecca's daughter Molly was born while she was on remand and awaiting sentencing for serious offending.

Like most Auckland inmates, she gave birth at Middlemore Hospital, her mother by her side and two guards right outside the delivery suite door.

Rebecca had applied to go into the unit after Molly was born, but was declined for safety reasons - that is, Corrections had concerns that the mother and baby may be in danger in the unit.

Because she was yet to be sentenced, the High Court was able to grant her bail on humanitarian grounds, and she signed the forms releasing her to live with her mother the same day Molly was born.

That bail continued for three months after sentencing - where she was given a term in prison - while Corrections considered her second application.

"When I got word that I had been accepted, I got in the car with my daughter and drove to the prison and handed myself in," she says.

"From the moment I knew I was coming in here I was trying to bring her with me. I just didn't want to be separated from her at all, I have heard of cases in here of mothers who have had that happen and the psychological damage it does to people, not being able to see your child, not being able to breastfeed - it's so terrible.

"It was really hard bringing Molly into prison, but once you settle in you realise how very lucky you are. She has given me focus, just to know that she is in the safest place she can possibly be is good."

Molly is now 16 months old and thriving. She's a happy, alert little girl with bright eyes and though she's shy at first with new people, once she warms up she is animated and a real little character.

From the moment I knew I was coming in here I was trying to bring her with me. I just didn't want to be separated from her at all...

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During the interview she sits on her mother's knee eating a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie - which Rebecca proudly hands around the room - and watches everything that's going on around her intently.

A normal day, one without a stranger interviewing her mother and cameras set up in her lounge, starts with Molly getting up and having breakfast with the other kids who live in her house - a girl and a boy, both babies.

New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.

"After breakfast we clean the house, clean our rooms and then I go to work in the garden," Rebecca says.

"I exercise regularly with a couple of other prisoners, we get on the bikes in the exercise rooms. We go for walks, we go to the library.

"You're just doing the things with your baby that you do at home, to a point. And it definitely makes your sentence easier to handle. You get to focus on your baby and that's all it's about, your baby. You just get on with that."

The women in the unit must pay for everything they need for their babies out of their own pockets - they can access some benefits to help provide, and their families usually assist financially.

Toys, clothes and blankets are often donated by charities or left behind by mums when they are released.

And the inmates have a garden where they grow their own veges, so feeding the youngsters is a bit easier on their bank accounts.

As well as her regular chores and childcare, Rebecca has also worked hard on her studies since she was locked up, completing her NCEA and an Open Polytechnic course.

She's now embarking on a diploma in relationships, communication and psychology in her spare time. Not that there is much of that when you are a solo mum with an active toddler.

What helps though is that Molly spends a lot of time with Charlie, who is only a few weeks older than her, and the closest she has to a sibling.

It was really hard bringing Molly into prison, but once you settle in you realise how very lucky you are.

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It's clear to see when they get together that they adore each other - high fives are constant, kisses are blown and they take turns following each other around the communal garden and play area.

"Our days are pretty busy actually," Jessie says, laughing.

"We're always on the go, I let Charlie have heaps of playtime, and we read - he's got a pretty good routine and he loves to hang out with the other babies, he mixes really well with everyone up here."

New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.

The mums in the unit have forged close relationships and lean on each other for support, guidance and help - they often watch each other's children to allow attendance at prison courses and programmes, which is a big part of rehabilitation and reintegration.

"We talk about everything - food, sleep routines, stage-by-stage with my son," Jessie says.

"Before I came into jail I didn't have any parenting skills ... I think I have learned a lot being in this unit. I have changed every aspect of my life, I've become wiser and I make better choices.

"My family reckon I've changed heaps," she says, proudly.

The woman in charge of the Mothers and Babies unit at ARWCF (and the feeding and bonding room where inmates who cannot have their kids inside full-time can spend a few hours of quality time) is Daisy-Fau Tanuvasa.

She's short in stature but big in personality, warmth and heart - not quite what you'd expect from prison officer, but exactly what's needed for the unit.

She works closely with the mums and babies, which is evident from how relaxed they are in her presence, how quickly the toddlers reach for her and smile when she enters the room, and how at ease the infants are in her arms.

New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.

"You have to remember, the babies are not prisoners, they are not inmates, their mothers are," she said.

"We make sure we've got the right people in here - it's about safety for the mothers as well as the babies."

To all intents and purposes the women in the unit are normal mums. They tend to their babies 24/7, they choose what they eat, source and prepare it, they set the routines, they are 100 per cent responsible.

You have to remember, the babies are not prisoners, they are not inmates, their mothers are.Daisy-Fau Tanuvasa, unit manager

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According to Corrections National Commissioner Jeremy Lightfoot, there is plenty of solid research showing that children of prisoners are more likely than others to end up in prison themselves.

Positive contact between a parent in prison and her child improves outcomes and reduces anxiety.

"Every child deserves a good start in life. They deserve a stable, supportive environment with a mother who is committed to what is best for that child," Lightfoot told the Herald last month.

"Mothers in these units are able to minimise the impact on their children, build on their parenting skills, take part in parenting programmes.

"The units provide a structured and supportive environment for mothers to re-focus their priorities, ultimately reducing the risk of them reoffending."

New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.

That supportive environment is set up to allow the women to parent as they would on the outside. Everything involving their child is their decision.

They can apply to take their children on outings - Tanuvasa says Butterfly Creek and supermarket shopping are popular requests, giving the kids an opportunity to see the real world and engage in simple everyday things like petting an animal, seeing new food and people for the first time or travelling in a car - but approval is not guaranteed.

"It's all about providing normality for the children as often as possible," Tanuvasa says.

"But it's a privilege, not a right."

In the next few months both Charlie and Molly will turn 2, reaching the age limit for children in prisons.

Though Jessie will be released a month before Charlie's birthday and won't be separated from her boy, Rebecca is facing a much bleaker outcome.

She becomes eligible for parole shortly before Molly hits 2, but is not confident she will be granted an early release. She has studied and worked hard during her time in prison, but she is yet to complete some of the courses that inmates need to do before the board, generally, will consider releasing them.

It's a terrifying thought to have to hand her baby girl over to someone else - particularly because Rebecca is the only person Molly really knows.

New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.

Rebecca's parents are supportive but live half a day's drive from Auckland and cannot make the trip regularly.

"Mum has taken her out (of prison) twice and she said it was complete torture. Molly doesn't really know anyone but me.

"She spent the whole two hours she was with my mum crying her head off -she's never been without me and I don't know how she will go if I don't get parole and she has to go. That's my biggest fear.

"The outside world is totally new for her and it's a scary thought."

Rebecca also fears that being raised in prison will have a negative long-term impact on Molly.

"Children can get quite institutionalised, especially if they don't have someone who can take them out from behind the walls. They get so used to it in here," she says, looking at her baby girl and gently stroking her hair.

"I definitely worry ... all the time."