Separating a child from their mother is generally recognised as being traumatic for children and something to be avoided unless the mother represents a risk to the child. Despite this, the state separates an estimated 17,000 children from their mothers via imprisonment every year.
The overwhelming majority of the women have no history of violence and do not represent a risk of harm to anyone else. Most often, those offences have occurred because of reasons related to poverty, trauma or both – although we should not forget that around a third of women’s convictions are for not paying the TV licence fee.
Most sentences women receive are short – often for as little as three weeks. But the sentence repeatedly results in great harm to them and their children, including the loss of their home. Just 5 per cent of children whose mum goes to prison are able to remain in the property they lived in before the sentence and around two thirds of women leave prison without a home to go to after release. The overwhelming majority of children will, of course, lose their primary carer, with only 9 per cent of children being cared for by their father while their mother is incarcerated.
The entire criminal justice system can be very traumatic for those who see their mothers face it – even before the point of incarceration. Children may witness the process of arrest. In some cases, it can seem to children like their mother has just disappeared if they are denied bail. Currently we have little available to support these children.
There is a very large body of research looking into the outcomes of children of prisoners which clearly demonstrates that they are a particularly vulnerable group, with specific and complex needs. Despite this, they remain ‘invisible’, with no processes in place to systematically identify them at any point whilst their parents are in the criminal justice system.
This means there is no mechanism for informing schools, social services or any other organisation who may be working with the family. Instead, the system unduly relies on children and parents self-identifying to services. For many families, this is the last thing they want to do as there is a widespread perception that this could mean children going into care.
Often children present with behavioural and emotional problems at school with no obvious cause – yet that child is carrying the burden of the secret that their mother is in prison.
The stigma of women’s imprisonment can also mean a child who does tell others what is happening can find themselves ostracised by classmates and their parents alike – adding to the trauma they are already experiencing.
The benefits to prisoners of maintaining family ties is well researched and quite conclusive, yet the way the prison system is set up makes this hard. This is particularly the case for female offenders who are more likely to be held further from home than male offenders: 64 miles away from home on average. This means visiting can be difficult and expensive, which in turn has an adverse effect on family relationships. Prison visits for children can be particularly traumatic, with rules such as not being able to sit on their mother’s lap being very difficult for children unable to comprehend such instructions.
The irony of women’s imprisonment is that not only does it have catastrophic consequences, but sentences are often too short for women to even begin addressing any of the causal factors to their offending. It means any problems women had upon entering prison are likely to be exacerbated by their imprisonment.
The average annual cost per place in women’s prisons in 2019-20 ranged from £45,565 to £55,411 per year. With the current government extending the female prison estate, we can expect to see rising costs to the taxpayer in the near future. This is in spite of the clear evidence of the social and societal damage caused by women’s imprisonment and the fact there is no rise in crime indicating more women’s prisons are needed. The government could instead look at supporting women – particularly those who are primary carers – to address the issues that lead women to offending.
It is time to stop ignoring the impact that having a mother in the criminal justice system causes women and children. We need to start ensuring those children are identified and given support throughout. It will no doubt save money later if we can prevent trauma developing in this vulnerable cohort of children. We must stop punishing them for the misdeeds of their mothers.