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Blog, Policy briefing | 22 March 2020

Happy Mother's Day to the unknown number of mothers in prison

By Olivia Dehnavi, Policy and Research Officer at Working Chance

Often people think about punishment in terms of the number of months or years a prison sentence carries. What they might not consider are the secondary costs. For every woman who is sent to prison, there are others in her life who receive knock-on punishment from the state. And most often, it is children who suffer.

We have no idea how many women in prison are mothers. The best guess is a large proportion. While we know that 54% of the prison population have children under 18 years old, we don’t know how many of the parents in prison are women. This omission in the data conceals a host of traumatic realities – and makes the children of these women invisible.

Mothering from a cell

Women in prison are held an average of 64 miles from their home and family. This figure has been worsened by the closure of London’s only women’s prison in 2016, and the fact that there is no prison for women in Wales.

Moshoodat was sentenced to 20 months in prison when her baby was less than a year old. She had her baby in the middle of the court process. It was an extremely stressful time, and after giving birth she ended up representing herself in court because she was no longer able to pay for a barrister.

‘Being in prison is traumatic enough, but then they move you far away from your family. Because of travel costs and everything, they might not be able to make it.’

In prison, Moshoodat missed out on six months of her daughter’s life before she was eventually let out on tag. She was still producing milk when she arrived in prison, having recently been nursing, and had to use a breast pump in her shared cell. Prison officers promised to freeze the milk to give to her family on visit days, but her family never received it.

Moshoodat recognises that she was lucky to have the support of her family. ‘Imagine people who don’t have family,’ she says. ‘That’s why a lot of children end up in care.’

She’s right. Even a short prison sentence (73% of women receive sentences of six months or less) can lead to children being taken into care.

Despite never having been away from her four children before her sentence, Moshoodat was at first reluctant to let them visit her in the harsh prison environment. But she relented eventually. ‘The fact that you just had to sit down was a bit difficult. They could go to the play area but you can’t go to the play area.’ The visits were bittersweet. She says, ‘When they left I’d always go back to my cell and cry.’

Distance from home, the costs of travel and the emotional toll of visiting prison means many mothers in prison must cope with total separation from their children whilst inside. Only half of women who lived with their children prior to a custodial sentence receive visits from them during their sentence.

Moshoodat believes this must change. ‘They have to try to put people as close to home as possible.’

Your family is convicted as well

Every aspect of a child’s life is affected when their mother goes to prison.

There is no government agency that holds responsibility for ensuring the welfare of children whose mothers are in prison. Unlike the family court system, criminal courts are not obligated to put the welfare of children first when sentencing parents to time in jail.

Each year, there are an estimated 17,000 children in England and Wales with a mother in prison. 95% of those with imprisoned mothers will have to move out of their family home as a result, many of them also having to change schools or be separated from siblings. And only 9% end up being looked after by their fathers. One in five women in prison are lone parents before imprisonment.

Trudy, who received a five year prison sentence, is thankful for the help of her sister during her time inside. Never imagining she’d end up in jail, Trudy found herself travelling straight from court to a cell without so much as having packed a bag, so her sister took on caring responsibilities for her teenage son.

While she expected to be punished herself, Trudy says it was the knock-on punishment her family faced that truly upset her. ‘You are convicted, and your family is convicted as well,’ she says.

It’s a damning but accurate judgement. Evidence shows that having a parent in prison increases your risk of social isolation, depression, bullying and truancy. Studies consistently show that the imprisonment of mothers has deep impacts on children’s long-term health and wellbeing, school attainment, and quality of life. Plus, the trauma and shame of having a mother in prison can lead to serious mental health issues for children.

The irony is that many mothers commit crime in the first place to support those children. The vast majority of women in prison are convicted of non-violent offences related to poverty, such as shoplifting. But whole families pay the price when mothers are driven to offend out of desperation.

Broken promises

The government’s 2018 Female Offenders Strategy recognised that more women with convictions are primary carers of children than men with convictions, and that imprisonment of mothers can lead to intergenerational cycles of offending. Despite this, women with children continue to be put in custody, disrupting family life.

But it is certain kinds of families that suffer far more than others. Women in prison are disproportionately black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and from working class backgrounds, meaning that criminal justice is systematically relegating these populations to intergenerational trauma.

The government’s 2018 commitments remain unfulfilled, and prisons are still full of mothers needlessly separated from their children.

Keep families in one piece

Children are often an afterthought in the sentencing of women, even though the ongoing effects of prison have just as much of an impact on their lives as on their mothers’.

Reflecting on this, both Trudy and Moshoodat acknowledge that their sentences have had a lasting impact on their family. ‘It doesn’t leave you. It follows you,’ says Trudy, whose family still finds it hard to talk about her time in prison.

Moshoodat is happy to be fully absorbed in family life once more. ‘My children, I adore them so much. Through everything, my family is still in one piece and not in pieces, thankfully.’