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The Convict that Rocks the Cradle: Raising Kids in Canada’s Prisons

So you're pregnant in jail, what happens now?

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All people need to get it on — even, well, especially, those serving time.

Take the case of Kelly Ellard, one of British Columbia's most notorious murderers. Earlier this week Postmedia reported that Ellard, after months of conjugal visits with her boyfriend, a parolee with gang-ties, is now eight months pregnant.

Ellard is serving a life sentence after being found guilty in 2005 for the 1997 killing of Reena Virk. Ellard, then 15, ruthlessly beat Virk, alongside a group of six girls, underneath a Victoria bridge and afterwards Ellard and her friend Warren Glowatski drowned her in the river.

The father-to-be of Ellard's child is currently back behind bars after failing to comply to his parole. So, with both parents in jail, the baby eventually goes to the non-jailed family, right?

Well, as it turns out, it's not exactly as Orange is the New Black would have you believe.

According to Correctional Services Canada there are several possible options when an inmate gives birth. The first, and one most people would initially jump to, is that the child would either be given to the next of kin or go into the foster system.

However, there exists the possibility of Ellard rearing her lil' one behind bars.

The Institutional Mother-Child Program allows mothers who are currently serving time to raise their child in prison full time to the age of four.

"The program is intended to foster positive relationships between federally incarcerated women and their children by providing a supportive environment that promotes stability and continuity for the mother-child relationship," said Jacques Audrey, with the CSC, in an email to VICE.

Proponents of the program say that fostering this relationship drastically reduces a prisoner's chance of recidivism and is in the best interest of the child. The program moves the mother and child into their own little pad in a mother-child unit of the prison.

Read More: Babies Behind Bars

To be a part of this program CSC looks at three different categories: the woman having not committed an offence against a child (if she has, she can seek a psychiatric assessment saying she is not a threat to her child), she is classified in minimum or medium security, and she is not residing in a unit treating women for mental health issues.

If a mother successfully applies to the program a child could move into the jail from the outside as well.

The Guidelines for the Implementation of Mother-Child Units in Canadian Correctional Facilities—put together by the Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education at the University of British Columbia — say that "mother-child units in correctional facilities allow children to bond with their mothers in a safe and supportive environment and allow mothers to develop positive parenting and social skills."

"Through this lens, incarceration can be viewed as a transformative period for mothers and their children."

Critics of the program say raising a child behind bars is tantamount to child abuse but Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin, one of the authors of the guidelines, says that's simply an emotional response.

"I would say those people don't know what they're talking about and they don't have the best interest of the child at heart. Once you take a child away from the mother, there is no going back," said Martin.

"We should be doing everything to give that baby the best chance for a healthy life."

According to these guidelines the child would live with the mother in a special unit with a crib beside her bed and be allowed 24-hour access to her child. Other inmates can apply to be babysitters and the unit will be outfitted to best care for a child.

"If you actually looked at a Mother-Child unit, you would say 'wow, this is a great place to raise a child.' It just looks like a regular pre-school or day-care. It's a very appropriate place to raise a child," said Martin.

Martin said the prisons form collaborations with the surrounding community to have resources brought in to care for the child.

After the lil' prison dweller is four he or she won't be able to continue to live in the slammer and has to be transitioned to the outside — but the child can stay with the mother part time until the age of 12. The guidelines have not been fully adopted but Martin said she is pleased with the progress CSC has made.

"As far as I can tell, the policies for CSC's Mother-Child Unit, and the policies that the provincial branch eventually adopted were very similar to the content of the guidelines," said Martin.

According to CSC there are currently only six women participating in the Mother-Child program across Canada. Some critics, including Martin, say that number is far too low and many women are being left out of the program.

"We have so many children that are in foster care. So, what happens when a woman gives birth in prison? She goes to the hospital, she gives birth and the baby is put into foster care," said Martin. "So not only is that woman a bad woman because she committed a crime and is in prison, but she is now a terrible mother because her baby was taken away from her."

"I would challenge people and say that's an incredible opportunity to start breaking some of the patterns we have in Canada of putting children in foster care."

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