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The children of mothers in prison – how can we avoid the collateral damage?

Penelope Gibbs
25 Jan 2018

“Emotionally, it’s terrible. It’s like they’ve changed so much, they’ve got behavioural problems. They weren’t like that before. Especially the little one cries for his mum all the time” (grandmother caring for her grandchildren aged 9 and 5 while their mother is in prison, interviewed by Dr Shona Minson)

I don’t often get down about criminal justice. To be a campaigner you need fire in your belly and lots of energy. But I went to a talk yesterday by Dr Shona Minson which did depress. It was about the effect on children of their mother’s imprisonment – the damage done is immense. A recent study shows that anyone whose parent has been imprisoned is likely to die earlier, but those whose mothers have been imprisoned are likely to die even earlier than those whose fathers were imprisoned.

All children who have a parent (or sibling) in prison suffer, but children of imprisoned mothers suffer most because mothers are usually the main caregivers for their children in this country. My friend Josie writes a fantastic blog about being a prison wife and the impact of her husband’s imprisonment on the whole family. Her daughter took part in a CBBC documentary about the experience and described the pain of separation. Its not a competition, but the trauma experienced by those with a mother in prison is likely to be even worse (as Josie would acknowledge).

Shona spoke to children of imprisoned mothers and those who stepped in to look after them. The children suffer grief – the split with their mother is often sudden, and imprisonment comes with huge stigma. Many mothers are placed in prison so far away from home that their children can’t afford to visit. Or they don’t want to. Children love their mothers but get freaked out by the security searches, and the restrictions – not being able to bring your own toys, food or drink into the bare visiting room. The visits are short and the leaving is traumatic.

The absence of support for the child and their stand-in carer is shocking. It is simply assumed that someone will pick the child up from school the day a mother is imprisoned. But there is no systematic check that the child has a carer, and that carer is suitable. As Shona says, it is a slight miracle that no child has been neglected (or worse) as a result of their mother being imprisoned. There are no safeguards.

We could definitely improve the support for children whose mother has been imprisoned – both before, during and after imprisonment. But all the research suggests that that would only mitigate not eliminate the damage to the relationship.  We need more humane sentencing and more aware sentencers. An overhaul of sentencing overall (such as a presumption against short sentences) would benefit women, but knowledge and practice of existing law would also help prevent mothers being imprisoned in the first place. In fact, if all lawyers and judges knew the relevant law backwards, the imprisonment of mothers could be halved, and no mothers of dependant children would be subject to short prison sentences.

The law says that in sentencing a parent, the best interests of their  children should be a “distinct consideration” and “it may be appropriate to suspend a custodial sentence when the person being sentenced is the parent of defendant children”.  “Consideration” is a bit vague so Shona and colleagues have set out the information which should be given to a court when a mother is being sentenced. There are leaflets, and some excellent “training” films.

But other things need to change too. We need equality duties, and training in recognising unconscious bias, to be embedded in all mandatory judicial training and, above all, to change the culture of sentencing. Prison numbers are going up because sentences are getting more punitive, not because more people are going to prison. Yet a longer prison sentence does no more for rehabilitation and, in the case of mothers, is likely to increase the trauma both for them and their children.

As Lady Edwina Grosvenor said last night, the imprisonment of mothers is “outrageous”. Unfortunately it is part and parcel of a drift towards more punitive sentencing in general, a drift the government seems currently powerless to halt.