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‘A Life-Threatening Situation’: How Prison Fails Mothers and Children

Three years after a parliamentary committee recommended the Ministry of Justice records how many mothers are in prison, the National Audit Office criticises lack of progress on supporting female offenders, including lack of data collection on women with dependant children

A female prisoner. Photo: Andrew Fox/Alamy

‘A Life-Threatening Situation’ How Prison Fails Mothers and Children

Three years after a parliamentary committee recommended the Ministry of Justice records how many mothers are in prison, the National Audit Office criticises lack of progress on supporting female offenders, including lack of data collection on women with dependant children

Holding her baby in her arms, for the first time in her life Beth felt she was good at something. Her short life had been dogged by abuse and hurt. That started to change when she became pregnant at 19 and had a much-loved daughter. 

Four months later, Beth was sent to prison. She was still breastfeeding when her child was put into care and the life she had planned for her small family fell apart. 

Beth wasn’t in prison for very long. But those months apart meant that when she returned home, her baby no longer knew her. The family, the future, the recovering self-esteem and her little girl – it had all been taken from her. 

Unable to cope with the separation from her child, the impact of prison and her depression, Beth took her own life. Her crime? Shoplifting. 

“It is a life threatening situation for many mothers in prison,” Lucy Baldwin told Byline Times. Baldwin has published extensively on the impact of prison on mothers. “Many of them will resort to self harm – sometimes for the first time – out of frustration and not knowing how to manage the pain of being separated from their children.”

Beth’s daughter was one of thousands of children whose mothers are in prison, often serving short sentences for non-violent crimes.

The exact number is not known because – three years after a parliamentary report into women offenders and the right to family life recommended the Ministry of Justice record how many women sent to prison have children – this data is not systematically recorded.

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) into the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) female offender strategy, published this week, “identified a lack of joined-up data across the system and specific gaps in outcomes data on differential characteristics, such as whether women have dependent children”. The Ministry told the NAO “that work to address these issues is now under way”.

The most recent estimate, published by the Howard League in 2011, believed 17,240 children are affected by maternal imprisonment every year. 

The National Audit Office also accused the Government of making “limited process” in its stated aims to “improve outcomes for women”. 

The Government rejected amendments to its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would oblige a sentencing magistrate or judge to state how they considered the consequences for the child when sentencing the mother. It also rejected an amendment that would make the welfare of a child (with the inclusion of the unborn child) a distinct consideration in determining bail for a primary carer.

Instead, the Government plans to increase sentences for some non-violent offences, alongside increasing the number of women’s prison places – contradicting previous objectives to reduce the number of incarcerated women like Beth. 


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Stigma and Shaming 

Because most women commit non-violent offences which don’t always lead to a custodial sentence, being sent to prison is often unexpected. Mothers will drop their kids off at school before going to court, planning to be home in time for dinner. 

Children then come back to an empty house, as childcare is hastily arranged. Most children will be looked after by grandparents, while others go into social care or siblings take on the role of caregiver. The shock of separation can result in bedwetting, nightmares and flashbacks for years following their mother’s arrest. 

For mothers, the pain of not being able to say goodbye to your children and not knowing how they will be cared for is deeply distressing.

“Imagine your first night in prison,” Baldwin said. “Imagine being in that space, not having access to a phone, not knowing who’s going to pick up your children, not knowing what your children are going to be told.”

The mother’s worry for her separated children can drastically affect her mental health. Rates of self-harm in 2017 were nearly five times as high in women’s prisons as in men’s jails, although the percentage of imprisoned mothers who self-harm is not recorded. 

Fears for their children are often combined with a sense of shame of being a ‘bad mother’.

This was the case for Mary, who had no contact with her sons for more than 30 years. She believed they were better off without her as she had been in prison. She liked to imagine they were being fostered by a middle class family with a ‘good mother’ who took them to art galleries on weekends. In reality, they were passed around the foster care system and themselves ended up in prison. 

Throughout Baldwin’s 35 years working in criminal justice, she cannot recall a single woman whose mothering has not been judged at some point in the criminal justice system. Often, Baldwin said, mothers receive a harsher punishment because of the very fact they are mothers – that they have transgressed in some way and need to be made an example of. 

One young mother was sentenced to six months in prison for receiving a pair of stolen shorts during the 2011 riots, because the judge believed that as a mother and as a role model to her children she should have behaved better. 

When mothers are imprisoned, their children are also punished. Three-quarters of children supported by the charity Children Heard and Seen were negatively impacted by their parent’s imprisonment, with many becoming disruptive at school and some even leaving education altogether. Children whose mothers are imprisoned are more likely to commit a crime, suffer from mental health problems and have a drug or alcohol addiction. 

Lillia, who was separated from her children when she was imprisoned, told researchers at Coventry University: “I’m still being punished and so are my children, they are innocent but when you sent the mother to prison they suffer greatly.”

Because of the lack of joined-up data, it is difficult to know how many children have a mother in prison, making early intervention to prevent negative outcomes much harder. 

Short Sentences, Long Impact

The Female Offender Strategy, published by the Ministry of Justice in 2018, committed to holding fewer women in prison, with an increased focus on community orders and women’s centres. The MoJ allocated £5.1 million in its strategy to support women’s services in the community for 2018 to 2020.

However, the aims in the strategy appear to be at odds with the Government’s ‘tough on crime’ agenda. In 2019, the Government committed to recruit 20,000 more police officers (replacing those lost to austerity cuts), a move that prompted the creation of 500 more women’s prison places at the cost of £200 million. 

This response has been questioned by the NAO, which said the decision contradicted the stated objective of its Female Offender Strategy.

“The ministry did not factor in the strategy’s aim of having fewer women in custody when estimating how many more prison places it might require due to the Government’s commitment to increase police numbers,” the report said. 

Lucy Baldwin is calling for much more substantial change that puts the different experiences of male and female offenders at the heart of the prison system. 

“It was designed by men for men, and that legacy persists,” she told Byline Times. She cited the example of handcuffing women in labour en route to hospital or en route to ante-natal appointments – a male-default policy that doesn’t recognise women’s specific vulnerabilities. “We still make these decisions based on men, with no recognition of the impact on the female estate. That needs to change.”

She is cautiously optimistic, however, not least because conversations about mothers in prison are finally taking place. “There’s a renewed vigour for looking at the gender issues,” Baldwin said. “It’s a more positive time in some ways than it has been for decades, because the evidence about the harms of female imprisonment and the impact on children is out there. It now needs to be listened to and acted upon.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We launched the Female Offenders Strategy in 2018 with the aim of steering women away from crime and since then the number of women entering the criminal justice system has fallen by 30%.

“We are investing tens of millions of pounds over the next three years into community services like women’s centres, drug rehabilitation and accommodation support so that fewer women end up in prison.

“We are implementing changes to how we collect information from prisoners which will inform us how many primary carers are in custody and how many children under the age of 18 are affected by their imprisonment. These changes are due to occur in early 2022.”

This article was updated at 5pm on Wednesday 19 January to include an additional statement from the Ministry of Justice.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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