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Just metres from the Nepean River in Sydney’s West is a prison with a difference. Jacaranda Cottages is home to 15 mothers who are serving their sentences with their young children by their sides. There’s a playground, a lawn, and nine cottages that look like demountable cabins you might find in a campground. Each cottage has a large veranda and up to five bedrooms for the women and their children to share. On weekends and in school holidays, older children move in. The facility is surrounded by a green pool fence and there are two guards at the entrance. Belinda McInnes, the manager of the Mothers and Children’s Program at Emu Plains Correctional Centre, explains. “The children are our priority. We have women at Jacaranda Cottages who have committed murder, been convicted of dangerous driving, and who are on drugs charges. Our business is to ask what is in the best interests of their children. In many cases, it is to be living and bonding with their mothers, even it means they have to live in jail.” Patricia*, 28, was caught in Kings Cross with 3.9 of pure methamphetamine with a street value of $3.3 million in July 2014. Her two children were staying with their father and her mother in Spain when Patricia discovered she was pregnant with her third child during routine testing when being processed in the women’s section of Silverwater Jail. Patricia was sentenced to seven years jail with a non-parole period of four years and six months. She gave birth to Gerard* in Westmead Hospital and foster parents cared for him while she went back to jail before her case went to court. McInnes told Patricia about the special Mothers and Children’s unit, she applied to be part of it, and a month after moving into Jacaranda Cottages baby Gerard joined her on the inside. Patricia tells JANE SOUTHWARD about her life and her hopes for the future.

“Every day begins with a muster when they check if we and the children are there. I get up at 6.30am and Gerard gets up at about 7. He has a bath, breakfast and gets ready, and then we go out for a play. There’s a playground in the jail and a lot of grass. Sometimes we have playgroup.

The houses have five rooms, which means five mothers and children can live together. At the moment there are only three in my house. There’s one part-time mum, and one girl who has her daughter in here on weekends and in school holidays, because the child is 11. The other is a general prisoner – she’s not a mum.

We live together like a family, and it can be challenging. It depends on who is in your house. We all get on well and it’s like a little family for us. I am normally the one who does the cooking. I make lunch and dinner for the girls and everyone does their own breakfast.

The hardest part is being so far away from my family, knowing that my other kids are in Spain and I am here. I call my mum every day. It’s expensive. It’s $7 for 10 minutes. I get to talk to my other children – my daughter who is eight and my son who is five. At the moment they are living with their dad.

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