A review of the applications to mother and baby units in prisons

Legacy Content

This project or publication was produced before or during the merger of What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC) and the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF).

A review of the applications to mother and baby units in prisons


Thematic review of characteristics and family histories of women who applied to Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) in prisons.

Full Report



A thematic review looking at the characteristics and family histories of women who applied to Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) in prisons, as part of the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families’  review of the decision making process used in MBUs (full review here). Our findings show the importance of understanding more about the histories and experiences of women who apply to MBUs.


The aims of the review were to answer the following:

  • What are the characteristics (including risk and protective factors) of the mother and family history in cases where applications have been made to MBUs?
  • Are there differences between cases where mothers with children were accepted to the MBU and where they were not accepted to the MBU?


We reviewed the characteristics of 67 women whose applications to an MBU were accepted, and 39 women whose applications to an MBU were rejected and have reported important contextual information about their applications.

Alongside this, we present a more in-depth thematic analysis of the applications of 15 women whose applications were accepted and 15 women whose applications were rejected by the MBU.

Our sample size was too small to carry out any statistical analysis on the data, so any differences between women whose applications which were accepted or rejected may not be statistically significant although they do illustrate potential trends.

We did not analyse the MBU Boards’ decisions themselves, as this was the main focus of the Chief Social Worker’s wider review.

Key Findings

  • The amount of information available to review for individual applications varied considerably, highlighting the absence of systematic data collection about the characteristics of mothers in prison and their children.
  • We found considerable variation in whether a report was submitted from Children’s Social Care on the mother’s parenting ability to the MBU Board as part of the application process, and whether a social worker attended the MBU Board hearing.
  • Adverse childhood experiences were common amongst all applicants, with some also experiencing involvement with children’s social care (CSC) themselves as children.
  • Where the mother’s interaction with their baby was reported, this was largely described positively and many mothers were seen to be taking positive steps for change.
  • Women whose applications were rejected more often had other children, and previous involvement with children’s social care.
  • Women whose applications were rejected by the MBU were more likely to be on remand and to have a history of offending behaviour.
  • We found very limited information about fathers and their experiences.

Implications for Policy

This report should be read alongside the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families’ wider report. The wider report contains more detailed recommendations about improving the MBU application process with the aim of improving outcomes for women and children.

Implications for future research

  • Further research is needed to look at the longer term experiences and outcomes of these women and their children, and to explore if there are any statistically significant differences between the characteristics of women whose applications are accepted and whose applications are rejected.
  • Further research should consider the experiences and roles of fathers of these children, as information about them is often missing from the mothers’ and children’s case files.
  • A standardised approach to recording women’s characteristics and details such as the nature of their offence, or involvement of CSC, would ensure a better understanding of this group, and enable future research to ask more detailed questions about these women, the support they receive and their outcomes.
  • Better recording of factors such as ethnicity and immigration status for example, would help improve understanding of the experiences of certain subgroups of women.

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