Families separated by bars – the home truths about sending mothers to prison

Mothering behind bars. Shutterstock

Being separated from a close family member can be emotionally fraught. It can be especially challenging when that person is incarcerated. And the situation becomes even more devastating when children are deprived of their primary carer. This is what can happen when a mother is sent to prison.

The vast majority of women in prison in England and Wales (82% in 2014) are being punished for non-violent offences, with 41% held for theft and handling goods. But imprisonment involves a removal from society that does not only punish the individual being sentenced. It will always have a serious knock-on effect on their families, and for a mother this includes her children. Around 4,000 women make up the female portion of the prison population (about 4.5% of a total of around 86,000 prisoners), two thirds of whom are also mothers. But as many as 10,000 women will be taken into custody at some point within a 12-month period, which means 18,000 children are estimated to be separated from their mothers in this way every year.

Many of these women lived with their children before being incarcerated, often as sole carers. A study found that only 5% of affected children remain in their own homes for the duration of a sentence. The domestic upheaval can also mean these children are more vulnerable to emotional and psychological risks, on top of the potential stigma and economic strain associated with their mothers being in prison.

Family members, usually grandparents and aunties, tend to look after children during a mother’s prison sentence. Their new responsibilities often mean major adjustments to their daily lives and finances. There is little statutory provision for prisoners’ relatives, who instead often look to voluntary organisations including Barnardo’s, the Prison Advice and Care Trust and Partners of Prisoners for advice and support.

And maintaining contact with a prisoner is not straightforward. There are only 12 women’s prisons spread across England, with none in Wales. As a result, most women are held considerable distances from home – with 15% detained over 100 miles away. The cost and travel time required to visit is another burden for families, especially for those already struggling financially.

Visiting plights

On arrival at a visit, face-to-face interactions are stilted, largely because the imprisoned mothers must remain seated – restricting their ability to interact with children who struggle to understand why mummy can’t get up and play. This is potentially extremely upsetting and confusing for children, who may instead choose to spend the designated visiting time in a play area. Because of this, mothers may feel as though they are missing out on a rare opportunity to sustain their relationship with their children even when they are physically present.

Prisons do run “family days”, extended child-friendly visits organised by the prison, often with input from prison charities, that allow free movement in an area equipped with fun activities for the children. But these tend to run less frequently. And because of their popularity, family days can be oversubscribed, making it difficult to secure a place.

Telephones are also used by families to remain in contact, but access to phones on prison wings, the cost of calls, and the associated lack of privacy can make even this problematic, causing further strain on relationships as mothers struggle to speak to their children on a regular basis.

The difficulties of keeping in contact punish not only the prisoners, but also innocent children and family members. For prisoners, maintaining family relationships through the sentence and on release are considered to improve rehabilitation and can help reduce re-offending. However, there has been little consideration given to the potential benefits of maintaining these relationships for the children themselves. Providing consistent and positive contact during the sentence can help to maintain the parent-child bond, and prepare all parties for the mother to be released and resume primary care.

Female prisoners are now receiving some attention from policy makers. A report by Baroness Corston almost ten years ago proposed that a “radical approach” was required for this sector of the prison population – emphasising women’s familial responsibilities. This was reiterated in a 2013 review, which recommended that women prisoners should be held closer to their homes and dependant children. Earlier this year in a speech on prison reform Prime Minister David Cameron urged a rethink for mothers with babies in prison. But he made little attempt to identify what reforms are required to support imprisoned mothers with their family responsibilities.

When a mother is sent to prison, the repercussions on her children can be considerable. It is time to think more widely about prison reform, not only for the imprisoned mothers, but their children and family members who are also serving a punishing sentence outside the prison gates.