The impact of prison on mothers and their children is the topic of this guest blog from Suzanne Perry, Research Officer for Barnardo’s i-HOP service
i-HOP attended ‘Maternal Incarceration’ an event hosted by the MAMSIE (Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics) network in collaboration with Clinks. The purposes of the event were to identify key challenges for mothers in prison, examine work already mitigating these challenges as well as to explore topics through a feminist lens. Anne Fox, Clinks’ CEO who chaired the proceedings, set the scene. She illustrated the incompatibility of early motherhood and imprisonment; that normal things associated with becoming a mother such as being made to feel special, celebrating and having some allowances made for you, are prohibited in prison. New mothers in prison are only allowed six weeks off work or education, as opposed to the year to which mums in the community are entitled.
The first speaker was Naomi Delap, Director of Birth Companions. The organisation began with a group of antenatal teachers who came together in support of women in HMP Holloway who had no one to accompany them during child birth. 20 years later in 2016, following David Cameron’s high profile acknowledgement of the needs of women in prison, the Birth Companions Charter was launched. It highlights and aims to standardise good practice in prisons order to ensure the safety and wellbeing of women and their babies. The hope is that there will be a prison service order for perinatal women. This early intervention approach would improve outcomes for women and children and create future savings to the public purse.
In a similar vein, the following presentation from Laura Abbott (ex-midwife, lecturer and doctorate student at the University of Hertfordshire) focused on her research of pregnant women in prisons.100 babies are born in prison each year and only 50% of mothers and babies able to stay together. 80% of mothers in prison have mental health problems and many have experienced domestic abuse. Laura went on to share the varied experiences of mothers in prison; one woman hid her pregnancy for fear of other women’s reactions and intentions. Another, like many women, found out she was pregnant upon reception into prison. She felt very uncertain about what would happen during the birth, who would be there, whether she would be alone, if she could breast feed and who would care for her baby. Another participant was only able to breast feed for three weeks before she was separated from her child upon being sentenced to prison. Laura stressed the emotional turmoil experienced by women recently separated from their babies when they are locked up in their cells for most of the day due to not being enrolled in prison education or work scheme. Despite all this, Laura’s research highlights perinatal women’s appreciation of small acts of kindness and understanding from prison officers.
The third speaker was Anastasia Chamberlen from Warwick University who had also conducted research in women’s’ prisons. Her talk focused on the subjective embodied experience of imprisonment to explore the intersection between gender and punishment. Motherhood arose in her research within various themes, one being self-harm. Anna noted that women sometimes begin self-harming in prison as a result of being separated from family and then have to hide the scars from their children and families during visits or upon release. This harsh reality was corroborated by those in the audience who had lived and worked in female prisons. Mirroring the sentiments of Laura's presentation, Anna stressed that mothers in prison are often “more vulnerable than criminal”.
Lucy Baldwin (ex-probation officer, lecturer in criminology and author of Mothering Justice) gave a more child-focused presentation. She began by reminding us that an estimated 18,000 children are separated from imprisoned mothers each year and asserted that in general, women’s sentences are unfair on children. During one prison visit Lucy observed a child fall over and a mother who was prevented from physically comforting them. For older children, not having a Mum around can mean a lack of crucial life advice and for some children having a grandmother go to prison can be detrimental. Lucy reminded us that motherhood can be simultaneously the most poignant and most judged aspect of a woman’s identity. Anne Fox later highlighted that not recognising this is a missed opportunity for reducing reoffending, failing the women, families and wider criminal justice system. Lucy recalled a research participant who was a proud mother of five whose probation officer had never asked her about her relationship with her children. The event attendees agreed that high quality contact between mothers in prison and their children is needed for effective reintegration back into family life upon release.
The audience learned of Ireland’s good practice; mothers’ prison sentences can be deferred if deemed harmful to children. Mothers are also given free stamps and six minutes of phone credit per day in order to maintain family ties.
The last speaker was ex-barrister Shona Minson from the Centre for Criminology at the University of Cambridge. Her research looked from a children’s rights perspective at imprisoned primary carers in England and Wales. Shona noted the harms to children when a mother is imprisoned including poor educational experiences, lowered wellbeing, stigma and discrimination. Each aspect of the parent and child relationship is regulated by the prison which can be at odds with the best interests of the child. Visits may only be possible during school hours and attending may be a lengthy and costly process, taxi fares are not covered by the Assisted Prison Visits Scheme causing young people and families to face costly journeys from the train or bus station to the prison gates as these routes are not commonly covered by public transport, and some children may not even be allowed contact with their mother at all. “Every aspect of children’s lives”, Shona stressed, “is affected in the immediate and long term”. Despite these negative impacts, children are often not asked about how they are affected. A 16 year old participant in Shona’s study laughed when asked how he felt about his mum going to prison as no one had ever talked to him about this before.
Discussions at the event recognised that prisons are struggling due to austerity. Important points were made about staff shortages leading to untrained prison officers making assessments about the health and labour status of women in their care. There was also recognition of the ‘emotion work’ needed from prison officers working with perinatal women.
There was a general agreement amongst speakers and attendees for the need for significant reduction in imprisoning primary caregiving mothers. Comments centred on putting an end to disruptive short prison sentences for women and increasing community programmes, as recommended by Baroness Jean Corston 10 years ago in her seminal review of the female secure estate.
i-HOP’s take on this event centers on a few things; a belief that people can change and in the legitimacy of parenthood regardless of gender or imprisonment. With these sentiments in mind we can work towards improving the wellbeing and outcomes for the children of imprisoned parents.