Nadine Sims* was three weeks pregnant when she was recalled to prison, having broken the terms of her license following a three year stretch for GBH. In January 2010, her daughter Yvie was born in the local hospital then immediately transferred to Holloway Prison’s Baby Unit. Less than a year later Nadine made the heart-wrenching decision to voluntarily separate to have Yvie moved back into the outside world.

“It was painful – the hardest decision for any mother to make – but I knew it was the best thing for Yvie,” she recalls, months into her release and fighting for partial-custody of her three-year-old child who now lives with her father. Sims believes that by preventing her from seeing her daughter, who she raised for the first 14 months of her life, the system is causing lifelong damage to an innocent toddler: “With Yvie they’ve potentially created another troubled child who unless something changes may grow into another troubled adult. It is so sad. We are talking about a little girl, she needs her mum. She has already been through so much in her life, I can’t see why anyone would want to make things more difficult for her.”

At the age of 13, Sims was sent to a behavioural unit. A familiar story ensued: falling in with the wrong crowd, drugs

Sims, 31, knows from experience how childhood experiences can colour the rest of a person’s life. She herself was an angry little girl (” I had a few psychological problems,” she says). At 13 she was sent to a behavioural unit, which she calls “full-stops and capital letters, because that’s all they taught you. It was slow”. A familiar story ensued involving falling in with the wrong crowd and drugs. It wasn’t until she was sentenced to life with a three-year tariff that she started to get her act together. “I used my time really positively, I learned to adapt because I knew I had to. I wanted to change so I applied for all my courses, did them and benefited from them positively.” Sims found the counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which she applied to get to the root of the problem, most useful: “I wanted to change,” she reflects, “the problem with a lot of prisoners is they don’t want to change”.

Following her release, almost exactly three years after being sentenced and having proven herself to be a model prisoner, Sims got her first proper job, in recruitment. She was earning a good wage but because she wasn’t living on benefits, she says she was penalised: “Based on my income the hostel charged me £860 a month for a single room! I wasn’t polite about it, I called them all incompetent tossers and was called aggressive and was recalled.”

The second time in prison, things didn’t work out so well: “I was angry about what had happened, perhaps I didn’t deal with it in the right way. I always spoke my mind but inside you’re not allowed to speak your mind, they call it challenging behaviour. I was continually challenging and pushing boundaries and they wouldn’t release me.”

Being pregnant in prison is dismal but I made the most of it. I couldn’t become depressed; everything affects your baby when you’re pregnant

Having been recalled in 2003, Sims remained in prison until May 2008. By that point, she says, the rot had set in. Before too long she was sent back for a third time, this time for driving with only a provisional license (she says her boyfriend had been drinking so she took to the wheel instead of him).

The difference was, this time when she recalled, in spring 2008, Sims was several weeks pregnant.

This time around, she was sent to Bronzefield, a private prison in Ashford, Surrey: “Being pregnant in prison is quite dismal. The whole of shopping for baby, doing up the nursery, you just can’t do. But I made the most of it. I couldn’t become depressed; everything affects your baby when you’re pregnant. I didn’t want that to happen so I put a smile on my face and got on with it.”

In order to keep a baby in prison, pregnant women have to undergo rigorous risk assessments overseen by Social Services. In Sims’ case, she was deemed fit to look after her daughter who was born in January 2010, weeks after she was moved to HMP Holloway, one of two prisons in the UK equipped with a mother and baby unit.

In Holloway, her daughter was taken out once a month. Seeing her glimpse the outside world, only to be cooped up again, was testing

Officially, approved mothers can keep their babies in prison for up to 18 months before separation when a baby is relocated to the outside world but informally this can reach three years if she has a set release date or a good chance of parole. “From the moment Yvie was born they kept trying to separate us because I didn’t have a definite release date. I got a very good solicitor and they couldn’t do it. I had a review every year with the possibility of release.”

Despite having a good reputation, HMP Holloway – which is now due to close – was not a good experience for Nadine who was relocated to Peterborough mother and baby unit when her daughter was 10 months old. “The staff there were polite and nice and supportive, the unit was purpose-built and clean and fresh. It was how it should be.”

In Holloway, as a part of a long-term separation plan in case Sims could not get released,Yvie was being taken out once a month by her sister to help build up an attachment. When they arrived at Peterborough, that was stepped up to twice a month. Seeing her daughter glimpsing the outside world, only to have her cooped up again, was testing.

More and more, I saw her looking out the window onto the grounds of the prison and I knew she had become aware. It just broke my heart and I couldn’t do it anymore

One day after being returned to Peterborough after a prolonged visit to stay with her maternal grandmother and aunt, Yvie had a meltdown: “She was in a complete state, she was screaming and crying, trying to run for the door. It was heart-breaking, I said ‘I’m your mum’ but she just kept crying.”

At the same time, the only other child her age was released with her mother, so that the only other children in the nursery were babies: “One morning Yvie was in the creche, I looked through the window and I could see her sitting there in her little bumble bee suit, and she just looked so bored. More and more, I saw her looking out the window onto the grounds of the prison and I knew she had become aware. It just broke my heart and I couldn’t do it anymore.”

On 6 March 2012, Nadine Sims made the decision to have her child taken away. So, when Sims went to open prison at East Sutton Park, which doesn’t have facilities for children, Yvie went to live with her dad and his new partner. She says it was a temporary measure while she waited for release: “Even though I didn’t want her dad to have that involvement, I knew it was in Yvie’s best interests. I thought I’ll get on with this, get out, and then I’ll look after my daughter properly on the outside.”

It is just so sad, they’ve created another insecure child who is going to have problems, another delinquent who is going to end up in the system

Except now, having been released last year, Sims has only been allowed to see her daughter three times. Despite having met the stringent measures demanded by Social Services to prove she was capable of raising her child in prison, before giving birth, and having demonstrated since that she has her child’s best interests at heart, she is now locked in a bitter battle to gain partial custody of her child.

“I would like my daughter to live with me on weekdays and with her dad on weekends,” she explains. “Of course she needs to spend time with him, she is only three years old and already she has been batted from one place to another. She needs security, and she also needs a mother.”

Having undertaken an Open University course in understanding children while inside, Sims hopes the situation is resolved as quickly as possible: “Everyday memory isn’t supposed to set in until a child is three but Yvie is aware of everything. There is no reason why Yvie should be deprived of having a mother, none at all. I bought her a pair of gloves and she won’t take them off. She eats in them and sleeps in them.

“Her little personality is setting in now and all this, everything that she is going through, is going to have a lasting impact. It is just so sad, all they’ve done is just created another insecure child who is going to have problems, another delinquent who is going to end up in the system.”

*Not her real name

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